Koya, Soho

Sunday, 25 April 2010 | |

There are some incredible openings set for 2010, as you can see here. For me though, one of the most exciting restaurants debuted a couple of weeks ago, namely Koya in Soho. Despite hearing about it and noting that it was next door to Mooli's, I sort of forgot about it until reading this thread on Chowhound. The positive report there, and then from various Twitter users and bloggers oiled the hype machine and I had to go. I wasn't going to review this place originally, just post some pictures, but I might as well describe the food a bit.

The menu. Irasshaimase indeed. A simple concept (they specialise in udon) with quite a complex menu. Complex in the sense that it is double-sided, and as well as small-plate starters you have about thirty udon options (and then some extra toppings, if you wish). These are separated: hot noodles in hot soup (eaten mostly in Winter); cold noodles in hot soup; cold noodles in cold soup (a more Summery dish). Prices range from about £6.50 for a simple bowl to £11 or £12 for more extravagant udon.

Onsen tamago (£2). Literally 'hot spring egg'. As David Chang explains in the (rather brilliant) Momofuku Cookbook: "The story I was told is that old ladies would bring baskets of eggs with them to the natural hot springs that are all around Japan - hot springs and public bathing are important national pastimes - and while they were there, the hot spring water cooked the eggs at a constant temperature of around 60 degrees C or 141 degrees F.) The technique produces eggs that, because they've been slowly coaxed into cookedness, are creamier and more unctuous than regular poached eggs." He's right. The tamago here is oyster-silky, with the yolk and white sticking together and floating in the dashi. The soup complements the rumour of eggy flavour. A great dish and certainly a must-order at Koya.

Kakuni (£5.50). Pork belly braised in apple cider, served with shallots and karashi. Not quite as tender and melt-in-your-mouth as it should be, but it still retained a good flavour and despite the slight bite, it was pleasant to eat.

Saba udon (£9). Smoked mackerel in a hot broth, with hot udon noodles. The dashi is made from scratch in the restaurant using katsuobushi and is absolutely miles ahead of anything else I've tried in London. The mackerel was firm and the implied smokiness was decent, whilst the greens (shiso and others) wilted beautifully into the molten broth. The hand-made, fresh noodles were fantastic: chewy and slippery - all those good things.

Niku udon (£8.50). The thin slices of shabu-shabu like beef look unappetising in this picture (they look like an OAP's ear) but they had a good flavour and were predictably tender. The noodles were once again brilliant and the stock worked well in this bowl, amongst the spring onions and masses of sweet, yellow onion.

Tap water was placed on the table immediately as we sat down, which is always nice. For two people, the bill came to around £30 for everything; a decent price to pay for a seriously good lunch. My advice would be to go and sit down at the counter (space for four) and watch the team in action and speak to the approachable chef. In terms of noodle soup dishes in London, the bowls we tried here would probably rank above other favourites of mine: the beef brisket ho fun from HK Diner; the la mian from Zheng Zhong Lan Zhou La Mian Noodle Bar; and the Asakusa udon from Asakusa. Koya has received a lot of early praise and will continue to do so. It deserves all the success it can get for offering something different and is a welcome addition to a foodie friendly Soho street.

Koya on Urbanspoon

Santa Maria, Ealing

Friday, 23 April 2010 | |

On Valentine's Day of this year Ealing acquired a new patron saint; Santa Maria on the eponymous St. Mary's Road arose and ushered in a new era of culinary excellence. This pizzeria is the newest addition to a burgeoning list of gastronomic destinations in West London. But the owner's of this small eatery have designs on the whole city and for good reason: the pizza here is excellent. On my visit the display was adorned with copies of the latest edition of Time Out London which had conducted a tasting of London's best pizzas with Santa Maria heading the pile. On the pizzeria's website they say that they never had any doubt about being London's premier pizzeria but my pie did not arrive without fault. 

The pizzeria is a well-designed and petite, reflecting the intricacies in the foundations of pizza. The stylish building has few seats indoors and two tables outdoors for those warmer days. The menu is single sided (always a plus point) and the pizzas begin at £4.50 (the Santa Maria Pie/Marinara). They recently acquired an alcohol license and serve beer, limoncello and other digestifs. An interesting addition to the menu is the inclusion of Gelato from Oddono's of South Kensington which is perfect in the run up to the British Summer. 

 A single pizzaiolo shapes the pies and bakes them for 90 seconds in the wood-fired oven. The oak gives a consistent smoky taste to the pies and the blistering heat of the Neapolitan built oven makes sure each pizza is cooked for just a minute and a half.

 The finished pies come out well blistered and in only one size (12 inch pie). 
 I ordered the Santa Margherita (£5.20) - tomato, mozzarella, basil, olive oil and salt. The true test of any pizzeria is the strength of their Margherita and this scored highly on several fronts.

 The dough was soft, springy and well charred with an excellent tasting cornicione. The cheese:sauce ratio was very nearly perfect with tangy but sweet tomato giving way to creamy islands of mozzarella. The basil perfumed the pie consistently which heightened the eating experience. The olive oil and salt adding the perfect finishing touches to a very good pie.

 The much fabled 'upskirt' shot provided a better insight into the strength of the oven. The base was well charred and gave a clean smoky taste. 

 The side-on shot provided greater insight into the air pocket structure of the base and this is where the pie dropped some points. Although the base was light and springy it lacked a certain 'lift' from the air bubbles that would have afforded the pie an even greater lightness. The dough was well formed but this pie was still susceptible to sogginess in the middle.

The final bill provides another big plus in favour of this pizzeria. Pizza should be affordable and this is definitely wallet-friendly..

On a whole this pizzeria impressed me on several fronts from the friendly owners to the well constructed pies and deserves all the success it will inevitably get. The pies were a great example of the Neapolitan sltyle but being only two months in after opening issues regarding consistency and longevity cannot be answered. If this truly is the King of the London pizza scene then it has a lot of competition that will be ready to usurp it should it ever falter. For the first time ever in London we have multiple options when it comes to great pizza and we should not take that for granted. Bon ap'!

Recipe: Slow Smoked Short Ribs of Beef

Sunday, 18 April 2010 | |

A recipe! I didn't plan on doing recipes on this blog, really, but why not? It's getting hotter, people have started having barbecues and I had a camera handy whilst cooking up some short ribs.

You'll need:

Short ribs (2kg = four big pieces, the meat of which will shrink). These are cut 'English style', with the bone and flesh separated into individual chunks. A good butcher will cut them in different styles though, if necessary. Speaking of good butchers, I got my short ribs from The Ginger Pig. They probably won't be on display so ask for them  - they'll get out a beef forequarter that has been hanging and will expertly cut your short ribs off. Make sure to watch out for the butcher trimming the fat off the meat. It looks like jerky, due to the dry ageing, and smells incredible. Anyway they'll charge you £6.50 per kg for the short ribs; an absolute bargain for some well aged, well marbled meat from one of the best butchers in London, with the caveat being that they need to be cooked low and slow.

Spice rub. This will provide a Texas barbecue style dry rub, and ideally will be applied to the meat the day before you are going to smoke it. Just before is fine, but at least an hour will allow some of the flavours to permeate the flesh and give more flavour to the meat. The rub I use contains:
2 tbsp salt
1/2 tbsp black pepper
2 tbsp garlic powder
2 tbsp onion powder
2 tbsp smoked paprika
2 tbsp sweet paprika
1 tsp cayenne pepper
1 tsp cumin
You can just go for some salt, pepper and garlic, but I like the smokey and sweet flavours of the paprikas, and the hints of onion along with the spiciness of the cayenne. Grind together and put into a shaker if you have one, otherwise you can apply it simply with your hands.

Wood chips. I used oak which was steeped in whisky for this recipe, which is fine, but I find hickory to be ideal for beef. You can purchase some hickory wood chips on a site such as SoCal. Make sure to soak for half an hour before putting on your coals, and then drain thoroughly, to increase the flavour.

A smoker (or a normal barbecue with a lid). I use this bullet smoker, burned body and all, which acts as a sort of smoky oven with a lid placed on top, and the racks provide a perfect indirect heat. You could just use a normal barbecue though, moving the coals to one side and placing a lid on top, though this looks more impressive, I suppose.

Meat thermometer. Ideally you'd use one that cost more than £2, but as long as it vaguely lets you know the internal temperature, you'll be fine. You could even go without one, as the ribs should, if cooked correctly, fork apart easily.

Cooking method:

Apply the rub. Tenderly massage the short ribs like you mean it; like no one is looking; like they're paying you for it. 

Set up the barbecue. Light the coals. When they're white and settled, add some wood chips. If your barbecue has a built in thermometer, check it and make sure it reads 220 degrees fahrenheit. IMPORTANT: this heat has to be kept at a constant - this is the most important thing when smoking food, it would seem. Add the ribs with the bone facing the bottom of the grill (flesh side up). Optional: add a water bowl to the barbecue to keep the air moist. This can also be filled with whisky, vodka, beer, apple juice. Anything, pretty much.

Check the ribs regularly - once an hour, to be precise. Add more wood chips when needed (not that often). Bear in mind that the smoke is just flavouring the meat, and not cooking it - the heat is, so needs to be kept an eye on.

Don't worry if they look burned, that's how they're meant to look. The meat will have shrunk after about four hours, exposing some of the bone and will be easy to pull apart. Let it rest for about twenty minutes, before either gnawing on the meat like Fred Flintstone, or forking off to make 'pulled beef'.

Greenwich Union, Greenwich

Thursday, 15 April 2010 | |

Another week, another burger review. This time, Greenwich Union, on the recommendation of one of the guys from The Ginger Pig in Borough Market (read his unbelievably good blog here). Butchers know about meat, right? And meat is an important component of a burger, yes? To say I had high expectations would be an understatement; I had hopes that this burger would be better than Disneyworld on Christmas Day.

As well as their evening menu, Greenwich Union offers up a lunch menu of one dish meals: risotto, lasagne, a burger and some good looking fish and chips.

Meantime Helles (£3.40). One of the biggest pulls of the pub is the beers on tap (not to mention the respectable selection of bottled beers, including Sierra Nevada). With a small, exclusive selection including this Helles and a chocolatey-tasting Stout, there's obvious care taken into maintaining the pipes. I won't claim to know much about beer, but this is a pretty good pint, which went well with the burger.

Homemade 28 day aged Angus burger, tarragon mayo and chips (£7.90).

Homemade 28 day aged Angus burger. On arrival, everything looked up. Literally. A seriously vertically blessed burger; the bun was as tell as the enormous patty of beef and I'd guess it would weigh in easily at ten ounces. Additionally, it looked like the very good burger from Goodman. I attempted to grab it and eat, but that was not going to happen. Even the squash and shove method (squash the bun, shove into gob) didn't prove successful. In the end I had to cut it across and work my way through it. The first bite - a long time coming - was a confusing one. The meat tasted good, but the burger was entirely dry and mealy. Ah, breadcrumbs, my old foe. I hate breadcrumbs. They don't belong in a burger at all. There's a reason the best hamburger patties contain just beef, salt and pepper. Another aspect of the patty was the mustard, cooked (grilled) into the beef, which was a nice touch but couldn't save a dry and tiresome burger. The bun did nothing to help either, being rather stale and overwhelming the meat inside; a real challenge to get through, despite it's sourcing from Rhodes Bakery. Steaming would soften this bun and make it more pleasurable to eat. The rabbit food (lettuce, onions, tomato) were fresh and supplied a crunch that was lacking due to the grilling, rather than flat-top griddling of the meat. This burger could easily be a lot better and it's an admirable effort, but too much has been done to it, too much messing around. Simple 80:20 chuck, salt and some pepper; steam the bun and you have yourself a good burger.

Autopsy shot. I requested it medium, which didn't matter as it came out well done and unfortunately seriously dry. If the burgers are going to be cooked to this temperature, then more fat is needed in the blend (75:25 or thereabouts) to allow more juice to run through.

The remains. A serious amount of crumbs from the burger, which tried it's hardest to make me lose at Jenga. The tarragon mayo, in the little bowl, is seriously good though.

Chips. Probably triple-cooked, from the texture, these proper Maris Piper, skin-on chips are a joy. Crunchy on the outside, fluffy and soft inside, they hid a taste and revealed a crunch that showcased a deft hand at frying.

Despite the disappointing burger, I like Greenwich Union. If this was my local pub I'd be in there as often as possible: amazing chips, great beers on tap and free wi-fi. With some adjustments they could also have a great burger on their hands, for a decent price, but as it stands there's too many mistakes holding the burger back. This visit also came a few days after my first Meatwagon burger, which has somewhat ruined other London burgers for me - it's that good.

The Meatwagon, Peckham

Saturday, 10 April 2010 | |

My top three London burgers, as of 9th April, 2010, 1pm:

1. Goodman
2. Hawksmoor
3. Byron (best widely available)

My top three London burgers, as of 9th April, 2010, 1.05pm:

1. The Meatwagon
2. [SIGH]
3. [SIGH]

The London burger scene is definitely getting better. I even wrote an article saying as much on the quasi-biblical A Hamburger Today hamburger blog. Additionally, I often write about burgers on here (namely Byron and Goodman, as recent examples). The banner for this blog features an image of a great burger; I like hamburgers, and I've started liking them in London a lot more than I once did. A visit to the highly elusive Meatwagon on the hottest day of the year so far has blown all competition out of the water, far exceeding my expectations and delivering a truly fantastic burger. London's best, in fact, and at a price which makes a gruelling 90 minute journey to an industrial estate in Peckham well worth it.

Yianni Papoutsis. The half-Greek, half-Irish, carpenter/caterer with a desire to improve London's slowly blossoming street food scene. He knows about burgers, having travelled around the US of A on a search for brilliant food at low prices, in curbside locations, sampling some of America's best hamburgers en route. He cites the trucks in Los Angeles and San Francisco in particular, as big sources of inspiration. He pitches up with The Meatwagon whenever he has time off his day job, and plans to open more regularly in the longer days of summer. Here he is pictured with a six or seven ounce wad of chuck (just less than 20% fat; more on that later) just about to go on the grill. Also, note the Casio F91W on his left wrist, a classic watch (also worn by Sam of Mooli's).

The cooking process. Yianni places a ball of meat on the 30-year-old cast iron flat-top griddle and then squashes it down into a round patty with the palm of his hand. When asked how hot the griddle was exactly, he smiles and says "fucking hot." Good answer: the extreme heat of the cooking surface produces a crust that only griddle cooking can, skipping the charcoal-grilled taste for a superior crunch to the outside of the patty. The griddle can hold up to four burgers at a time, and all burgers are cooked "with a little bit of pink in the middle", though requests can be made for rare or otherwise. On the blend, Yianni bypasses the usual ratio of 80:20 in his freshly ground, locally purchased 28-day aged chuck in favour of a slightly leaner blend. He cites the reason that a fattier patty of minced beef will retain slightly unpleasant globules of uncooked fat if done rare, whilst his blend guarantees juiciness and a good eating experience no matter how it is cooked. Liberally seasoned with just salt and pepper after being squashed, Yianni flips the patties and then adds two slices of American cheese. Not Kraft Singles, but better, and he isn't letting anyone on to his cheesy secret weapon.

Steaming the cheese into the patty with a lid. A lid! I bloody love lids, I really do. No one else seems to do this in London, but it is an essential component to creating an environment where the cheese can steam and properly melt into the meat.

The cheese in all its melted glory.

The buns. A truly contentious issue with all burgers in London. A bit of meat this good needs a good bun, and Yianni has sourced the best burger bun available in London (well, for this type of burger, at least). A brioche bun would be absolutely wrong here. The bun is a soft sourdough, toasted and then placed on the meat for the final few seconds of the cooking process. A pleasure to eat, not distracting from the meat but complementing it and retaining its structure until the last bite. Hardly a surprise that Yianni and the local baker he sources the buns from took about three months to perfect the recipe.

Ready for the rabbit food, gherkins and the sauces. You can ask for your burger without any of the toppings if you wish, but a cheeseburger with 'the works' comes with shredded iceberg lettuce, dainty rings of red onion, French's American mustard and Heinz ketchup. You need to make sure to ask for gherkins, as some strange people don't like them. Another plus point: no watery April tomatoes. Brilliant.

The finished article, before being placed in some paper. If you want your burger for later, they'll wrap it in foil for you, otherwise a bit of paper and you're ready to go.

(Photo by me)

(Photo by Samantha Newbery. Note the difference in the quality of the photos!)
Cheeseburger (£5). Glorious, absolutely something else. The well-seasoned cast iron griddle gives the meat a good crunch, and the quality of the meat shines through. Slightly nutty and impossibly juicy meat enveloped by creamy and well-melted cheese, whilst the mustard and ketchup do not detract from the ground chuck whatsoever, instead adding welcome fruity and sweet notes. The onions and lettuce are crunchy and fresh, completing a delicious package. Note: the bun does look slightly too big for the meat in this picture, but it is perfectly proportioned. Each bite includes a bit of each component, all working wonderfully in synch.

Autopsy shot. Perhaps more well done than I would have liked, but even at medium-well it was still juicy and I had to dance like Michael Flatley to avoid the juices dripping all over my Air Force 1s. Seriously though, look at that goopy cheese. Amazing.

Not pictured: 'Bobcat Burger' (£6). So called after The Bobcat Bite in New Mexico, which has a Green Chile Cheeseburger on their menu. Like a regular cheeseburger, except some freshly sliced green chilli peppers which are fried in butter are placed on top. Seriously good, with the flavours of the chilli overcoming the initial heat kick.

Philly cheesesteak (£6). Yianni, despite being a dab hand at making cheeseburgers, also dabbles in other American favourites such as cheesesteaks, tacos and even Korean Fried Chicken! The cheesesteak here has a few points that would probably make a South Philadelphian shake their fist angrily. First of all, the bread: rather than a soft, sub type Italian roll, Yianni a chewy and soft baguette. The cheese: no Cheez Whiz here, instead more of that high quality American cheese, nicely melted with the meat. Speaking of meat, Yianni uses seriously good rump, from the same butcher he sources the chuck for the burgers, and slices it thinly from a large piece just before throwing them on to the griddle. They get a nice seared crust, whilst the middle of each sizeable slice is tender and juicy. The griddled peppers and onions add a welcome crunch and acidic sweetness to every mouthful. Insanely, this is only £1 more dear than the predictably poor effort from Subway.

The Meatwagon is probably the most exciting thing on the London food scene for me right now. Perhaps one thing that can be said about this operation, though, is that the elusive nature of Yianni's burgers aids the burger experience; the thrill of the chase, following him on Twitter and awaiting an announcement of an appearance, then going to an industrial estate in Peckham - they are all part of the Whole Burger Experience. Would a bricks and mortar Meatwagon be less exciting and would people be less inclined to trek there? Perhaps, but the proof is in the eating, and Yianni's burgers are the best around.

Zucca, Bermondsey

Wednesday, 7 April 2010 | |

If you've ever read my blog before, or spoken to me about food at all, you'll know I'm a massive fan of The Maltings Cafe (visited here and here). In fact, I'd go so far as to call it London's best kept secret; a true gem for anyone who discovers it, with great food at unbelievably reasonable prices. There's one problem with Maltings, though, and that is the opening hours which are limited to say the least. Catering for a lunchtime crowd that work in the surrounding complex, there's not really a market for an evening, dinner shift in the immediate locale. That's where Zucca (Italian for pumpkin) comes in. Run by former River Café employee Sam Harris, Zucca caters towards a more varied crowd on the busier Bermondsey Street and is open for dinner as well as lunch, including the weekend. With the affable Andrea Locci, a familiar face from Maltings, once again at the helm, would Zucca deliver? A positive write up on Good For Lunch suggested so, and I had to check it out.

Note: Sorry for the awful quality of the pictures in this post.

The interior. Similar in style to Maltings, but with larger tables (and more of them, of course). Large windows let in a lot of natural light, and the white tables and chairs allow a fresh feel to the space.

There is also stools available so you can sit at the bar and enjoy some antipasti with a glass of wine, and watch the chefs in action in the open-plan kitchen.

A pumpkin, next to a Faema espresso machine, in the shadow of bottles of fairly priced wine from the Italo-centric list.

The menu. Unlike at Maltings, there is a physical, paper menu at Zucca, which changes less often (about once a week, though some items come and go with availability of stock). The menu is also longer here, with a number of antipasti available, as well as two pasta dishes, three fish and three meat dishes. The food is somewhat more expensive than at Maltings, reflecting the more expensive ingredients used, such as halibut and swordfish instead of whiting and bream. One could also factor in there is no service charge tagged on at Zucca; there isn't even the option to add it on when paying with a card, as it is factored in to the price and the staff are paid a decent wage, in a somewhat similar fashion to Per Se in New York City.

Bread: focaccia, baguette and grissini. All of the bread here is baked on the premises, and is offered free of charge, as well as Maldon sea salt and Planeta olive oil. The focaccia is unbelievable: appropriately oily and salty, with a slight crunch to the base providing a contrast to the puffy and springy centre and top. The other breads also prove a decent vehicle for the fruity olive oil and the Maldon sea salt - a significant improvement on the salt offered at Maltings.

Clams and samphire (£4). Clams steamed in white wine, garlic and chilli, topped with fresh ground black pepper, on a bed of wilted, salty samphire. A well judged starter, the sweetness of the fresh clams stands out and works well with the flavour-packed broth.

Buffalo Mozzarella, grilled courgettes (£3.95). Delicately grilled slithers of courgette, accompanied by a generous mound of buffalo mozzarella. The silky and soft courgette offers a smoky contrast to the milky and delicate cheese, whilst the drizzle of olive oil rounds up a good dish.

Slow cooked lamb, aubergine caponata (£12.95). A liberal amount of slow-roasted leg of lamb on an exemplary caponata, the creamy aubergine complementing the sweet-tasting new season lamb, with the tomato base providing an excellent platform for the rest of the dish.

Pappardelle with meat ragu, parmesan (£8.25 for a main course serving; £6.25 for a starter portion). The home-made pappardelle has a pleasing bite, carrying the tangy beef, pork and veal ragu, before another dimension of richness in the form of the grated parmesan is introduced. The sauce is minimal, instead allowing the shredded and tender chunks of meat carry a more intense flavour.

Not pictured: Chocolate and espresso cake (£3.25). Incredibly rich and moist chocolate cake, without an unbearable sickly sweetness, with a good depth of flavour.

The bill. About £15 each, albeit without any alcohol. Incredibly reasonable, especially when you factor in there is no charge for service, the bread is free and replenished without question, and a carafe of tap water is placed on the table immediately. 

As you may be able to tell, I'm a fan of Zucca already. The service is charming and warm, whilst the quality of the food easily exceeds the expectations one could place on it from the prices. Some people have said I'm too nice about restaurants on this blog, but when you're eating at places like Zucca, and seeing the hard work of the team involved is paying off, you can't help but be positive.

Zucca on Urbanspoon