Friday, 14 December 2012


MUXIMA has now moved to a new and larger venue at the Olympic end of Roman Road. A new post will follow once it has bedded in.  However, in terms of style and ethos, it has changed very little!

It's easy to miss Muxima, tucked away between vast building projects, but if you find it, you do have that glorious feeling of stumbling upon a hidden place. Whether it's tumbling down the rabbit hole, opening the door to the secret garden or entering the wardrobe to Narnia, these hidden places hold sway over our imagination. It's much the same with cafes and restaurants, the more recherché the better; note the  popularity of secret cocktail bars like Nightjar or Lounge Bohemia; or supper clubs where the location is only revealed a few hours beforehand.
There's none of this tricksiness with Muxima but once inside you kind of feel you've passed through a portal; as you settle with your coffee at one of the hewn tables, the nearby A12 becomes just a dream. Occasionally there maybe some African musicians singing and strumming quietly in a corner or a jazz ensemble setting up for the evening. 
Artists gather to discuss their work and an exhibition is always on. Film nights draw an eclectic crowd to enjoy Blade Runner missions with Harrison Ford.

Muxima means  'heart' in Angolan and yes, it's full of warmth and bonhomie. Isaac, the softly spoken charismatic artist/proprietor has almost reinvented the artists' salon where people drop in to gossip, drink coffee and eat cake, and find respite from the hurly burly of East London life.

You can find Muxima at 111-121, Fairfield Road, Bow, E3.

Sunday, 4 November 2012


"Fresh cracked crab with Boudin's round 'dark bake' sourdough
 and a well-chilled bottle of California Chardonnay is still the quintessential SF meal"
(Herb Caen)

Think sourdough UK-style: an artisan baker hidden away under railway arches in East London serving a small but enthusiastic clientele.  It's a different world in San Francisco, where Boudin (pronounced Boo - Deen)  has moved sourdough bread into the mainstream in ways that are unimaginable here.  In true USA fashion, it's as much about working the brand as kneading the dough.
The mission statement is loud and clear, and printed on the window of the massive downtown bakery / restaurant / museum located in the prime tourist location that is Fisherman's Wharf.
Boudin has been here from the start, even before California became part of the United States. The family arrived from France in 1849 at the start of the Gold Rush, marrying their French expertise as bakers with the local miners' sourdough leaven, a fusion of old European and pioneer American knowhow still obvious today in their sourdough baguettes.
The bakery has followed the vicissitudes of the city and nearly collapsed after the devastating earthquake and fires of 1906.  Louise Boudin scooped the mother dough (then a mere 50+ years old) into a bucket as she rushed out of the burning building, thus saving the business.  From these humble beginnings, Boudin has evolved into a modern high-output bakery that has entwined its image with that of San Francisco itself.  Now the ubiquitous clam chowder is best served, as in the image below, in a "bowl" made from a hollowed out sourdough loaf.

Boudin turns out sourdough loaves on an industrial scale to serve the city's hunger for its iconic loaf.  In addition, batches of the mother dough are sent around the country to offshoot bakeries, though these have to be renewed every two months as the lactobacillus that creates the SF taste begins to wane if away from the specific local flora and fauna that sustain it.

The look and flavour of the Boudin sourdough are distinctive, with an unusual dark orange-red surface that is quite heavily blistered. Initially, the crisp, chewy crust and soft, slightly waxy crumb are familiar enough; then that distinctive and powerful sour tang kicks in.  It is a taste that matches seafood and cheese especially well, but also works with just a slab of slightly salted butter and a bottle of Californian sparkling wine.

There are Boudin stores across the city as well as elsewhere in the states. "Entrepreneur" may be a French word, but there is something particularly American about the way this brand and product have been developed and positioned at the heart of San Franciscan consciousness.  You can find a Boudin cafe in Macy's (Union Square).
Macy's Boudin cafe
Or on Pier 39 (prime tourist territory).
The cafe on Pier 39, Fisherman's Wharf
Despite fellow travellers' mockery, you can pick up a loaf or two at the aiport to sustain you when you return home.

Monday, 22 October 2012


The idea for Dishoom comes from the East, from the bustling Iranian coffee houses that were scattered across Bombay (as it then was) over a hundred years ago. Dishoom initially opened in Upper St Martin's Lane a couple of years ago. Now it has gone East again, to Shoreditch, to a new yet artfully distressed space on Boundary Street. It feels a bit ersatz, at first, if not quite the full Disney: chipped plaster; lots of battered Indian artifacts scattered around; dog-eared posters and sepia-tinged family photos on the walls; to say nothing of instructions to chai-wallahs, taxi-wallahs and others chalked on the carefully roughened, dirtied walls.  Ceiling fans rotate lazily as if to dispel pre-monsoon heat.

Even during the soft opening, though, there is a buzz about the place, with queues waiting in line at weekends. The original Bombay cafes were renowned for drawing in a wide cross-section of city folk to sit and chat or do business over a quick bite, and the same seems to be true here too: Indian families (multi-generational groups, many in sarees) rub shoulders with Hoxton hipsters and couples on first dates, or fans just back from the football.
Roomali Roti, Black Dall, Paneer Tikka and Raita
We are introduced to the menu by a very keen, Eastern European waiter, who explains it works a bit like Indian tapas: the cultural collisions begin to jar. Some odd "fusion" moments have also crept onto the menu itself: a section called Ruby Murray; dishes called Dishoom Slaw and Chilli-cheese on toast; nestling in the cocktail list are Chaijito and Bollybellini.

However, the food itself is a different matter. It starts well with impeccable Chai and salted Lassi.  The Lamb Boti Kabob is succulently well-cooked, the Raita and chef's Special Black Dall are both rich and sloppy, and the Paneer Tikka is crisp, juicy and very well spiced.  Reassuringly, there are also some real Mumbai favourites here as well: Keema Frankies, dribbling with lamb and chilli juice, and battered glass bottles of Thums up and Limca.  The highlight though is the delicate, lacy Roomali Roti, a wisp of bread just right for dipping, dunking, wiping or scooping.

The ceiling fan is still turning, seemingly bringing on the monsoon itself: it's now raining outside.

Saturday, 13 October 2012


Get thee to a nunnery. Oh, ok then, and I’ll have a cappuccino and a double chocolate brownie while I’m there. And perhaps one of those bagels, and a Nude Espresso.
The Carmelite Café is a long way from Elsinore, in a part of East London that may have been familiar to Shakespeare but one he would struggle to recognise now. (And no, that's a different Stratford.)
Bow has been the victim of some vicious urbanization; any romantic notions of cockney sparrows, Bow Bells and St Clements are dashed by the heavy tread of regeneration, the need for new housing and Tesco Metros. But do some exploration on foot and you’ll find clues to the past. The original Bow Church is still there, albeit surrounded on all sides by fast moving traffic, and St Clements stands in derelict splendour. The Bryant and May Match Factory, scene of Annie Besant’s matchgirl strike, has been sensitively restored. And the Carmelite Nunnery now houses Art galleries and this great little café. Bow’s history hasn’t vanished – it’s just kind of hiding.

Here we are in NoBow, just north of the Bow Road, in the London Artists Quarter, and a short slings and arrows shot from the Olympic site.  The reek of oilpaint wafts out from the studios that line the narrow alleyway leading to the Café, several advertising their wares by slapping old paint against the walls.
Small, unpretentious and dedicated to good homemade fare, The Carmelite is a quiet haven, and place to contemplate whilst also stocking up on carbs before plunging out into the rough and tumble of London life. Food for body and soul in a modern kind of way. The coffee is excellent and there is a good range of cakes, croissants, etc, to go with it.  High points are the zinging apricot jam (in colour and taste) and the rich, crumbly flapjacks.  The service is warm and friendly, and there's a genuine concern to see that everyone gets exactly what they want.  Nothing is too much trouble.

So Shakespeare obviously knew a thing or two about the best coffee places in London.  A shame Ophelia didn't heed Hamlet's excellent advice, but we will be back again soon.

Thursday, 13 September 2012


"His fashion is not to take knowledge of those that are beneath him in clothes. 
He never drinks below the salt."
Ben Jonson: Cynthia's Revels 1599.

There was a time when going "over the bridge" on Mill Road towards Romsey Town was a bit like dining "below the salt"  alongside the ordinary folk at the lower end of the master's table.  All that has changed and there is now a wide range of independent shops, bars and cafes flourishing here, in spite of the competition from the new, much-resisted Tescos.

The latest addition, 196 Wine Bar, has already picked up an enthusiastic following, in spite of its quiet, stealth-like opening a couple of months ago.

It has an interesting wine list (by glass or bottle) and the cocktails are generous in both size and colour - try the Strawberry Margarita. Of the three bottled beers on offer, the unusual San Francisco Liberty Ale is nutty and refreshing, a good discovery. Complementing the drinks are simple platters of charcuterie or cheese, with pints of prawns or smoked almonds for snacks.  These have been well-sourced and are far more than just a side-line to the wine and cocktails.

Unsurprisingly, the place is packed, especially the outside tables on these late summer evenings.  It will be just as welcoming and snug as the winter draws in.

Friday, 7 September 2012


This unusual ice cream was devised by Lizzie at Hollow Legs as part of a recipe for Mochi: Chinese ice-cream balls encased in glutinous rice flour dough. I have been unable to master the rice mixture, ending up with rubbery lumps of dough and a snowstorm of cornflour. As straightforward ice cream, however, served with a little fresh fruit, this is fantastic, with its striking, dark grey colour and halva-like, sweet sesame flavour.

200ml   whipping cream
350mi   semi-skimmed milk
2          egg yolks
80g      sugar
7 tbs    black sesame seeds
1 tsp    vanilla

Toast the sesame seeds, watching carefully as they burn very easily; grind them finely.  Stir the ground seeds into the milk, then add the cream and heat to just below boiling point.  Stir in the vanilla and leave the cream mixture to cool for 30 minutes.
Whisk the egg yolks and the sugar until pale.  Stir a spoonful of the cooled cream mixture into the eggs, adding the rest in stages until it is all incorporated.  Put over a low heat and continue stirring until it thickens - do not let it boil or it will scramble.
Strain the mixture (although it works well unstrained, with a slightly earthier flavour).  Once the mixture has cooled, churn it in an ice-cream maker or freeze, stirring occasionally.

Wednesday, 22 August 2012


"Favourite restaurant in the world".... 

Checking out Trip Advisor for local restaurants in the French village where we are staying, it looks like we have struck lucky; sounds as if we are down the road from The Fat Duck crossed with The French Laundry

Fleurs D'Olargues is a quick (ok, bloody hot) walk from our rented house and it is a beautiful little place. Tables are set on a pretty terrace with a view of the medieval bridge; red geraniums and tomato vines tumble down to the river below and plane trees cast welcome shade. We arrive for Sunday lunch as do the locals, gathering in large convivial family groups. 

The staff are lovely, finding toys to hand out to the children, skipping down to the little vegetable garden fringing the terrace for bunches of herbs and bowls of tomatoes.  We order a bottle of Cremant de Limoux and, like David Cameron, chillax.....

This is a long leisurely affair in the best of French traditions, with amuse bouche and starter, then beef and then cheese and then 'oh what the hell...' pudding. 

This is not French rustic cooking, though, (it is no surprise to learn that the owners are Danish) leaning toward modern European. And it is all good and this, I think, is the key to the plaudits on TripAdvisor.  Nice food, a cool river breeze, a timeless view, the company of loved ones: this is all one could wish for in a restaurant. I may even write my own TA review.

Tuesday, 17 July 2012


After the success of Bonnie and Wild, the part-time restaurant that shared Manze's (Islington) last year, Bonnie Gull are now striking out on their own.  So here we are at the Seaside Shack: there are sailors' hats and sea shanties, deck chairs, fishing nets and buoys; an authentic surf-like spray drifts across our cheeks.
A couple of days into its brief residency (5th - 21st July) on top of Magdalen House on Tooley Street, Bonnie-on-Sky hasn't been blessed with seaside weather: more umbrellas tonight than sun shades.  A sheltering roof has been tacked over the "open-air" pavilion, and the spray drifting in through the porous walls comes from rain rather than pounding surf. From where we sit, The Shard looks like an up-ended liner about to plunge Titanic-like into the depths, wreathed by swirling showers and mist. It is a grey, grey evening!
A round of cocktails settles everyone, however, and the enthusiastic, youthful team of helpers buzzes about dispensing cheery smiles. Rumours of a possible British winner in the Wimbledon Men's Doubles Final emerge, set by set, from twenty or thirty glowing i-phones, and contribute an unexpectedly patriotic bonhomie. Then the hen party arrives, dressed for the occasion in naval costume and sailor hats, already well beyond the yo ho ho and a bottle of rum stage.
Bonnie-on-Sky is all about the fish: Bonnie Gull's sustainable, high quality, British fish. The starters are very good: plump mussels in a creamy cider-based sauce or smoked trout with beetroot and a horseradish cream on bubble and squeak.  There is a choice of mains, but everyone goes for the crab.  Bashing, cracking and prising open, slurping, chewing, this is hands-on eating at its most physical.  Neighbours become friends as bits of shell and crab-juice fly back and forth between tables.
Excellent though the food is, Bonnie-on-Sky is rough and ready in parts.  The service is immensely enthusiastic but not very accurate and mistakes abound; the wine-list mark up is a bit steep; cottony supermarket baguettes detract from rather than complement the dishes.  
But it's fun, a bit different, and on a warm, summer's evening, this would be a great place to be, beside the sea, watching the sun go down, chewing on a crab claw.

Thursday, 28 June 2012


Balzano's has been transformed.  It's still a great Italian deli, just the place for a few slices of prosciutto for lunch or a panettone for Christmas. The main counter is crammed with salumi, cheeses and various sweet confections; elsewhere, you can pick up some own-brand honey or jam, or wander past yards (metres?) of variously shaped and coloured pasta; shelves overflow with amaretti biscuits, wine and other Italian specialities.  What more could anyone want?
Well, these days, the answer to that is clear the second you walk in. The back of the deli has been knocked through to extend into a light and airy cafe; there is a courtyard to one side as well for the sunnier days of summer. Food shopping has suddenly got a lot more relaxing.

Dropping by for some lasagne sheets, we are drawn in by this bright, new space with its elegant wallpaper and attractive globe light fittings.  Seduced by the ambiance and the smells of good things cooking, we settle at one of the scrubbed pine tables and share an artfully constructed yellow and red pepper tart.  The coffee is good too.  
And now Balzano's been transformed again, if only temporarily: it proves to be the perfect setting for the recent inaugural meeting of the Plate Lickers Supper Club, Jo (Afternoon Tease) and Ivana (Missigs)'s Polish and Bosnian five-courser.  Interestingly unusual food (such as Chestnut with Speck Soup and Polish Pierogi) is served up in a great space, and the supper club is graced by Becky and Rocco Balzano themselves. Exciting times on Cherry Hinton Road.

The Plate Lickers Supper Club, 19th May 2012.
 Balzano's is at 204, Cherry Hinton Road, Cambridge. You can often park the Alfa Romeo giulietta just outside.