Saturday, 29 December 2012
Restaurant: The Long White Cloud
By Boeing: 11251 miles
By Boris Bike: 3.2 miles
When the Lord of the Rings trilogy swept all before it and transfixed generations it became the most successful and longest tourism advert in history. The stunning vistas of Middle Earth, from sweeping plains to snow-capped peaks, showcased the jaw dropping scenery of New Zealand, much to the delight of its proud patriot and director Peter Jackson. Add quirky comedy hit Flight of the Concords and hordes of Brits began talking of emigrating to a promised land. Meanwhile Kiwis continued to flock to move the other way seeking the excitement of London lights after the backwater tranquility of their homeland.
There are a handful of New Zealand run restaurants in London. Some, like Providores in Marylebone High Street, are expensive and exclusive. But it is their cafe culture that has made a lasting impression on our habits and tastes. The Flat White, a strong, creamy coffee, has become the caffeine based tipple of choice. Cosy, independent Kiwi coffee shops have sprung up across the capital and leading chains, begrudgingly, have added the antipodean speciality to their menus. But while they may be able to recreate the flavours the atmosphere and charm will remain unique.
I chose one such cafe, the Long White Cloud, located in the up and coming area of Haggerston, just north of Liverpool Street. It is a parish of affordable housing cheek by jowl with trendy bars and boutiques.
It was busy, with gaggles of mothers, entrepreneurs on laptops and student types occupying the simple brushed wood tables. On the walls was the now obligatory 'community space', posters and fliers advertising local businesses and cultural events in the neighbourhood. These were flanked by modern, abstract, sometimes irreverent art. In the centre was the serving counter, with a tantalising selection of cakes and tarts laid out on wooden boards. Above it was the chalk board menu, boasting an impressive range of snacks and light meals.
Most seemed to be opting for the frittata but not enjoying egg in its pure form I chose sweetcorn and bacon fritters. While I waited for them to be prepared I sampled a glass of the New Zealand staple, Lemon and Paeroa, presented with the tagline 'world famous in New Zealand.'
Pleasant enough, I watched an extraordinary salad being assembled on my plate. In my youth a salad comprised of lettuce, tomato and cucumber. But in the era of superfoods the salad has added many and various vegetables and herbs to its ranks. It was dizzying blur of grilled aubergine, grains and a veritable garden of greens. The fritters were crisp and filling and the saltiness of the bacon was deliciously cut through with a tub of cream cheese. This was, perhaps, the New Zealand variation on a British classic and it was most, most welcome. A well balanced salsa also added to the dish.
When it comes to culinary traditions New Zealand is known for its lamb. It always felt odd that a shank that has been flown round the world could still cost less than animals raised close by in Wales. But there are no signature dishes, just variations on traditional imperial fare. It is more rustic and redoubtable than Australian cuisine that has been influenced more by Eastern spices. Hobbits prefer stews.
I ordered a flat white and took a wander to the back of the cafe where they had a stall for Kiwi produce. I hoped to see Cairns fudge, made by the cricketing dynasty, but alas this was not one of the brands on offer. There were various biscuits and drinks but I picked up a Chocolate Fish. I'm guessing that this is a reference to the famous phrase that betrays a Kiwi accent 'fish and chups'. I bit through the thin layer of chocolate into thick, squidgy salmon pink marshmallow. Tasty. I wondered what Gollum would have made of it, or Andy Serkis for that matter.
I paused for a while after savouring the sweet salmon to listen to the burble of conversation. Various friends turned up to chat with the serving staff, one of whom was on crutches. The owner taught a young subaltern how to make a quiche, while the mothers boasted of the lack of expense spared in recent pram purchases. It was the hubbub of an afternoon and it was the ideal setting to tease out the anecdotes of the weekend past. New Zealand seems like that kind of place; friendly and familiar. It is natural, of course, that they compare and compete with Australia, but though Lou Carpenter is every inch a Dwarf Lord they are two very different countries.
Monday, 17 December 2012
Restaurant: De Hems
By Boeing: 4330 miles
By Boris Bike: 8.8 miles
Legendary striker Dennis Bergkamp revealed after the close of his glittering career that as a teenager he dreamt of becoming a cheese-maker and implying, astonishingly, that he wasn't sure he'd made the right choice. You see the Dutch take their cheese very seriously and celebrate anything orange with patriotic fervour. Like the English the Dutch have traditionally taken a simple, hearty and wholesome approach to food. Not for them the pretension and precision of French cuisine. But that is not to say that the food is bland, for the Dutch once ruled over a global empire of their own and brought back with them exotic flavours and a taste for spice.
The English have more in common with the Dutch than any other culture on mainland Europe. They play darts and cricket, drink in pubs and waste money on amusements on north sea piers. So it was fitting that I sampled Dutch cuisine in a tavern. Situated on a tributary of Chinatown the site has served beer for over three centuries , orginally called the Horse and Dolphin and owned by a famous bare knuckle boxer. At the end of the 19th century it was leased by retired Dutch sea captain 'Papa' De Hems and has been a meeting place for salty Scheveningen sea dogs ever since.
Drawn by its selection of potent Benelux brews De Hems was full to bursting with an eclectic mix of Dutch emigrees, post work drinkers and bemused tourists. With tables at a premium we sat around a low ledge with the collective din of Friday celebration making conversation near impossible. At this point I began to rue my decision not to go to the My Old Dutch Pancake House on the old kings road. But I wanted to try something different and I’d already eaten more pancakes than is seemly in a calendar year.
The décor was fitting and fun, with reproductions of Dutch masters and lacquered wooden signs in Dutch. The menu included a selection of Dutch snacks. None were light and none were healthy but then who wants to eat a radish perched precariously on a rivita with a beer? The first dish to be served was battered cheese, deep fried and oozing with an inappropriate dribble of calories. It was unnervingly filling. Next up was frikadellen, a long, tepid skinless sausage buttressed on both sides by chips smothered in curry sauce. This felt naughty, very naughty. Naughty and unnecessary. But eating through the pain barrier I polished it off.
But the calorific onslaught was not over. Not by a long shot. Next out of the kitchen was a platter of Bitterballen. These deep fried balls of veal ragout are a real national treasure. As you crunch through the crisp golden exterior you sink through a smooth, silver, seasoned gloop. These had a hint of curry, another nod to Indonesia found throughout Dutch cuisine. After wiping my mouth with a napkin I attempted a quick calculation of the number of lengths required to work off the night's eating exertions. The channel might do it, just.
Forget ultra marathons and iron men contests, this was a feat of endurance on a par with being an England cricket supporter in the early 1990s. I was so full that I couldn't even find room for one of my favourite snacks, the delicious caramel waffles that tempt me from high shelves in local corner shops. In Holland they sell them in town squares at hopelessly affordable prices. In their proximity I am as helpless as a dyspraxic moth drawn to a light bulb.
The Dutch serve as a bridge from continental Europe to Scandinavia. With much in common with their southern and eastern neighbours there is also something unmistakably northern, from the fair haired freshness of their countenance to their taste for soused fish. And yet as I sipped from my pint of Amstel it was the Englishness of the setting that intrigued me most. I thought of the tubby legend of the oche Raymond Von Barneveld with his hands aloft in victory at Lakeside, applause reverberating off a sea of orange before him. For him this scruffy corner of the Thames estuary is a home from home. And it feels natural. As natural, in fact, as walking around the picturesque outfield of the cricket ground in Voorburg.
Both nations are seafarers, empire builders and craftsmen. We both love sport, beer, rowing, sailing and effective irrigation. They grow more tulips, I have to concede that, and their per capita windmill ratio is unsurpassable. But there is a certain kinship and that is perhaps why I felt so comfortable. Gorged but calm, sweating but content.
Saturday, 8 December 2012
Restaurant: Monty’s Usha
By Boeing: 8505 miles
By Boris Bike: 9.2 miles
When Michael Palin visited the Himalayas on one of his cream chino adventures he was soon out of breath when he scaled the high and handsome plateaus of Nepal. And following in his footsteps I found myself snatching at breaths on an arctic amble in evening Ealing. For him the country’s stunning panoramas simply took his breath away while I choked on the choreographed conformity of my vista of suburban semi’s. We are like peas in a pod, Palin and I.
You would have thought these gentle, mountain dwelling people would have settled in Primrose Hill or commuted in from the Peak District. Flat like an urban fen Ealing appears so incongruous , and yet it seems it is where London’s Nepalese expatriots have chosen to settle. Walking from Boston manor I had already passed by several Nepalese restaurants before arriving at Monty’s Usha.
The contrast with Morocco was striking. There was no enticing or exotic scenes of comfort peekable through windows. The restaurant was situated almost apologetically in the corner of a municipal hotel foyer. I was relieved that no-one had joined me, especially no one that I wanted to impress. But nevertheless as I strode confidently into what appeared to all intents and purposes to be a canteen for administrative staff in a 1970’s provincial office I was optimistic.
Afterall, Nepal has a special place in my affections, inspired largely by my chino sporting arch-nemesis, but also as the subject of my first ever article. There was only enough space for six or so tables and several were filled, which augured well. I suspect most trade came in the form of takeaway customers for whom ambience does not come into the equation.
The waiter, an amiable fellow, appeared and disappeared in a seamless display of access and egress with all manner of tempting sundries through a door taken from the set of the Brittas Empire. I relaxed with a bottle Kathmandu Beer, promoted as both the ‘pride’ and ‘essence’ of Nepal and, according to the congested label, ‘served with special Himalayan essence’. The owner, a well tailored middle aged man, came over and explained that Monty’s was the first Nepalese restaurant in England but that a family spat saw the name spread across the metropolis like a fire from a bakers. A network of nephews and cousins now run their own establishments, to a familial theme and with the same distinctive font, across west London.
I took the opportunity to ask about the difference between Nepalese and Indian food. These sub continental neighbours both service our insatiable appetite for curry, but what is distinctive about Nepalese? Well, a different palette of spices for a start, but perhaps not noticeably so for a non discerning spice hound. The most commonly eaten dish is dhal with rice and vegetable curry. But dishes with a Tibetan influence are also eaten, featuring, in times of plenty, water buffalo dumplings. Preserved lemons and limes are sometimes employed.
The menu combined British curry institutions such as Tikka, Massala and Madras with the odd tantalising Nepalese speciality. As ever in curry houses the deliciously non-committal ‘special sauce’ featured liberally. Oddly Anglo-Indian dishes were listed under ‘traditional favourites’. I was reminded of the British link to Nepal in an appreciation of the alliterative ‘Ghurkha Grill’ and wondered whether these famously lithe and uncompromising soldiers would be allowed hunks of marinated lamb and chicken while on parade drill. I opted for a lighter lamb starter, delicately marinated in yoghurt and spice. It had more depth and subtly than your typical Tikka.
For the main course I ordered Chicken Kukhurni, a traditional dish served on the bone with a rich, spicy cream based sauce. Again it had more sophistication than a sugar-sodden Passanda or one of those puree based Massalas that is stodgier than Mersey mud. It was still a curry, but it was different and distinctive. If brummies are relocating to London and want to retain the authentic proximity of their adopted dish they could do worse than settle in this corner of Hanwell.
As I was served the dishes I engaged the waiter in a conversation about his cricket stars, several of whom I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing. He was astonished that I knew them. When I contacted them later that evening they were equally astonished they had a fan club in West London. It is a small world, as both Palin and I know all too well. And while Ealing isn’t formally twinned with Kathmandu there is a kinship and culinary tradition that links these two contrasting citadels.
London is the richer for all its culinary footprints and Nepalese is no exception. Monty’s provide a distinctive take on the Friday night ritual of a curry and beer, offering the odd surprise while retaining the comfort of familiarity.
Saturday, 1 December 2012
Restaurant: Zizou Tagine
By Boeing: 5493 miles
By Boris Bike: 1.18 miles
Wondering why the indigenous population of North Africa consistently apply wax to their jackets I arrived in high spirits to the smart, welcoming entrance of Zizou Tagine in Balham, one of South London’s trendiest neighbourhoods. I was confident that Berber hospitality would extend to preparing food for me, a relief given the Mongolian penchant for delegating that task to their customers, and provide a more convivial experience than my African adventures thus far. With my dining companion giddily excited about a recent trip to Marrakesh and brimming with anecdotes we walked into the sumptuous, low-lit ambient room and were led to a far table.
I stooped and I stooped and I stooped until finally lowering myself into the chair. I concluded that times must be tough and the lease was shared with a crèche. I hadn’t sat so low since squatting on a cushion during a surreal afternoon witnessing Yogic flying in Hove. Jealous of the becushioned bench I had chivalrously declined I rested the menu on my knees, that were jutting up at roughly the angle of an Olympic ski-jump.
The restaurant was evocative and cosseting with a deft dash of decadence that made you instantly forget the cold bleakness of an urban winter. Above us was a forest of lanterns, following from the Mongolian theme, but each was different and striking in design, catching the eye and enticing it to admire the detail.
Rich, draped velvet curtains dampening the draft from the door, intricate iron fretwork and rich, patterned cushions transported us to the exotic land of souks that feels like a world away and yet is near enough for an out of the ordinary weekend away. For a country heavily reliant on tourism it is no surprise that the welcome is warm and the reception lavish. For while Morocco is an Arabic culture its name translates as ‘the farthest west’ and its French colonial past and Berber heritage give its culture a unique depth.
The indigenous Berbers, a proud and striking people, give the land its vibrancy. A recent genetic study showed that they are closely related to the Sami people of arctic Scandinavia. How they ended up thousands of miles apart is part of the myth of early man but their presence on the northern extremities of a continent makes Morocco distinct from the African interior.
Its fertile northern shores are Mediterranean in appearance and attitude while to the South the vast arid expanse of the Sahara leads to a more mysterious, intrepid, unknown continent. And in-between the looming peaks of the Atlas mountains the villages nestled amongst which have hardly marked the passage of recent centuries.
By way of appetizers we ordered a trio of pastries that were light and delicately flavoured. Reminiscent of Cypriot and Levantine mezze they featured amongst them lamb, beef, goats cheese and spinach. Looking around the restaurant at the light shimmering off the necks of Merlots and Montepulcianos we looked in vain for a wine list, or indeed any alcoholic offering. But, Morocco being a largely Muslim nation, they did not supply their own. My reaction to this was, in hindsight, childish. Rather than accept this lack of social stimulants in good humour I merely ordered another, a super strength cardamom infused espresso, that doused all the delicate flavours that had hitherto been happily dancing on my palate. Both the waitress and my dining companion gave polite rebukes with stern, quizzical glances. And rightly so.
There seemed little option for the main course but to order tagines, named after an earthenware vessel with a exuberant, conical lid, a prime example of which I left in the boot of a car for twenty months after kindly being given it by my brother. Needless to say I never tested its renowned ability to produce succulent stews. Mine featured chicken thighs with preserved lemons while I looked covetously across at a lamb shank with dates and poached pears. It was a decadent dish for a decadent setting.
Continuing in that spirit we ordered traditional mint tea that was served from an ornate silver pot. It made caramelised candyfloss seem sour such was its all encompassing sweetness. The mint cleansed the palate and sugar saturated the mouth. It was like bathing under a cascading waterfall of Lilt. it was a fitting end to a sumptuous, sensual meal. 19 new hotels opened in Marrakesh last year to sate such appetite for exotic cultural experiences. I wouldn’t be surprised if it is difficult to get a room.