Saturday, 26 March 2011
Restaurant : Sabor
Location : Islington
By Boeing: 5454 miles
By Boris Bike: 2.1 miles
Having visited a strongly backed contender for the world’s best country and been served cheesy chips I arrived in Chile wondering whether 4000 miles of coastline would yield anything more appetising than a spam fritter. But whereas Canadians have kept little of their indigenous indulgences Chile’s heart still beats to an Inca rhythm. Although conquered by Spain, Chile, in contrast to many of its neighbours, has remained largely insulated from European influence. Its peoples lack the lackadaisical Latino languor of the Brazilian or the air of insouciant arrogance of the Argentine.
But restaurateurs in rent rich districts like Islington cannot risk the wait for a unique taste to be acquired; safer surely to offer a range of tastes acquired across a much broader region. Whereas Brazilian samba and Argentine sirloin can command their own restaurants, other nations in the region are often subsumed into pan-South American eateries, each represented by a dish or two on a continental menu. Sabor, softly lit in understated minimalist white, styles itself as a fusion restaurant, offering south American flavours tailored to a European palette with a morsel rather than a mouthful of authenticity.
With a swanky South Bank style Sabor traded the cultural clutter of a neighbourhood bistro for a sparse, modernist feel with colourful table-tops provided a flash of colour. Looking around there were few clues as to the origin of the cuisine, other than painted animal heads jutting from the wall. The closest to us, a Bull, had angry eyes as if riled by a matador. Further into the narrow restaurant i saw a stern looking goat, a ram along with other random ruminants, each painted in bold, brilliant colours, like totems watching over proceedings. The animal heads, though more imposing than impressive, were fitting for a country who boast a wealth of flora and fauna in a landscape encompassing salt deserts, glacial national parks, snow covered peaks, fjords, peninsulas and promontories.
I had hoped to try an authentic Inca dish of Rabbit in a chocolate sauce. Centuries before pompous celebrity chefs claimed to have invented chocolate as a savoury ingredient, challenging perceptions that it was limited to sickly sweet deserts, the Inca peoples cultivated cocoa and infused it with Chile and spice to create heavy, hearty stews. But despite its novelty appeal it had clearly not proved popular for the delicate palates and pinched waistlines of fusion food aficionados. While featuring on the web-site it had been dispensed with presumably for more frequently ordered continental alternative.
But hidden amongst a vast array of starters were Quinoa fritters. Quinoa was a high yield, high protein Inca crop that has been wholeheartedly adopted by the smug suburban super-foods generation who swear by its nutritional value and seek it out in the organic aisles of their local Waitrose. They came looking like large falafel patties, with a semblance of salad and a dollop of an angry looking salsa. With a nutty flavour and the texture of buckwheat they were wholesome without being particularly memorable. My companion's seafood empanadas seemed to offer a little more by way of fire and flavour.
With fusion food what is lost in flavour and portion size is compensated by a supplement to the price. Starters are merely hors d'oevres on larger plates while main courses are tapas size. My Chourico was very good, but was conspicuous by its lack of a companion. In a transport cafe the minimum quota for sausage and chips would be three, but the rule-book is different in fusion cuisine. My companion had a seafood dish that came as a thick soup with a pair of langoustine eyes peering above the surface. Though the particular dish was of Brazilian origin it was typical of a Chilean seafood stew, a south American equivalent of a Bouillebaisse. Such is the sheer length of the Coastline there are species of fish unique to Chile and with such bountiful waters many recipes feature fish and crustacea.
With our meals we sampled a Chilean Red. A relatively recent import to Britain Chilean wine has become one of the favourites of the New world wines. Indeed Chile is now the fifth largest exporter of wine in the world.
With such a wide range of landscapes and ecosystems tourists seeking all manner of different holidays head to Chile, from apres ski enthusiasts to shaggy haired surfers. But Chile's unique tourist attraction is not in the mainland at all but far away in Polynesia. Easter Island, the UNESCO world heritage site, has captured the imagination of the world with its monumental statues of ancient faces that jut from the barren landscape. It is thought these statues were built by an ancient Polynesian peoples that travelled thousands of miles by canoe. Historians believe that the ancestor cult, veneration of which inspired the construction of the eery, ethereal statues gave way to a birdman cult. Easter Islanders to this day head down to Bognor Regis to throw themselves off their pier.
Chile is one of the more stable, affluent South American countries, blessed with an abundance of natural resources and stunning scenary. It is shame though, that in England at least, it remains a relatively unknown culture, without the exposure of the countries on the Atlantic Coast. It's own London restaurant that celebrates rather than comprimises its culture would certainly help.
Wednesday, 2 March 2011
Restaurant: The Maple Leaf
Location: Covent Garden
By Boeing: 5889 miles
By Boris Bike: 6.2 miles
In a recent poll Canada was voted the country that had the most positive impact on the world. Yet it borders a country seemingly hell-bent on policing the rest of the planet, wreaking havoc and sowing animosity in the process. This neighbourly discord forms the cornerstone of Canadian identity. In the Middle East Americans pose as Canadians to avoid the acrimony and anger reserved for a nation widely perceived as the malevolent meddlers of the modern age. Canadians meanwhile do the opposite, desperate to separate their identity from their American cousins and assert their differences and distinctions.
Geography has condemned Canada to remain in America’s shadow but there are some key differences that soon become apparent. While the USA is fiercely proud of its independence, Canada is not only a member of the British commonwealth but also Francophonie, the alliance of French speaking nations. While the USA gives mere lip service to the authority of the United Nations and other international bodies, preferring instead a knee-jerk, Gung Ho ‘who’s with us?’ approach, Canada is actively seeking closer ties with the European Union. Canada seeks to sit round the table rather than lecture from the lectern.
The culture of Canada is defined both by its stunning landscape and vast open spaces and its split British and French influence. Many in the French speaking province of Quebec seek independence. Their architecture, cuisine and lifestyle are based around a French model. Meanwhile the other provinces, while having sizeable French speaking minorities, tend to look to Britain for their cultural and culinary cues. But irrespective of language or location Canadians look to the life of the great outdoors for inspiration.
With half the population of the UK spread out across the second largest country on earth there is no shortage of space. The vast lakes, mountain ranges and tracts of tundra would take several lifetimes to explore. These natural wonders have become the symbols for Canadian products and tourism posters. The untamed, untarnished wilds of the North seize the soul of the explorer. Ellesmere Island, just 508 miles south of the pole, is the most northerly settlement on earth. While Vancouver and Ontario are cities of reknown, Canada is a land of unending idyll rather than urban ideal.
The Maple Leaf was adopted as the national symbol in 1965. It has become the flag-bearing, mascot-wearing image of Canada and lends its name to London’s sole Canadian dining establishment. Intended as a home from home for ex-pats its principle lure are huge plasma screens beaming the national pastimes of ice hockey and basketball. Half-Timbers have been crudely affixed to the walls to give the impression of fur-trappers log cabin and the walls are satisfyingly scattered with cultural paraphernalia. Framed Ice Hockey shirts, sketches of Inuit camps in remote mountain ranges and sepia photographs of the visiting Elizabeth Regina offer interest and intrigue. But dominating the room and drawing the eye is a stuffed bear, standing on its rear paws in a glass cabinet. On this journey I’ve become accustomed to the tacky but taxidermy is something quite new.
I had a good look at the menu while supping a glass of some imported Sleiman’s Honey Beer. North American favourites including burgers, ribs and chicken wings predominated. Indeed you had to look hard to find distinctions with the greasy grub offered up at TGI Friday’s. Pulled Pork, Corn Chowder and Meat Loaf were introduced as Canadian specialities but i opted for the Canadian snack of choice, Poutine. This is rather an exotic name for an almost embarrassingly simple dish: French fries, smothered with melted cheese and gravy. I threw some ribs in too for a bit of variety. The Canadians have made a national dish out of something students have been lazily throwing together on jaded Sunday mornings since time, or at least formal scholarship, began. But it was pleasant enough and I left, as I had anticipated, full to the brim.
Canadian food is not for the calorie conscious. The long treks of those pioneers who sought to tame the wilderness in this perilously cold climate developed man-size appetities, only be sated with large quantities of fat-fryed fare. The hunting culture, embedded in national consciousness, makes vegetarianism almost an unpatriotic act, and huge slabs of Moose and Cow are enjoyed in quantities that would make a European baulk. For variety Canadians have welcomed the cuisines of their immigrant populations, with Chinese a particular favourite.
Although a very successful, affluent economy Canada is a quiet and understated exporter to the world. Except that is for comedians. Many of the funniest people on the planet hail from Canada including the rubber-faced pair of Leslie Nielson and Jim Carrey and the golden lights of the younger generation, Seth Rogan and Michael Cera. With the USA so close there is of course no shortage of satirical material at hand but even so the number of graduates from the school of side-splitting is impressive given the relatively small population. So the Canadians are popular, peaceful, pleasant and, it seems, particularly funny: there is a chance that with all this adulation they will become just a little smug too.