Thursday 28 November 2013

Al-Desko Dining: Spianata & Co

Of late, my al-desko dining posts have been a bit anti-sandwich. Now, I have nothing against the humble sandwich – far from it, in fact. And I recognise that my latest suggestions have been unhelpful from the point of view that the basis of this al-desko series is supposed to be lunches you have at your desk – I mean, you ever tried eating a bowl of pasta whilst trying to draft a complex memo at the same time? I have, and it only ends with one thing: Pasta. Sauce. Everywhere.

So today I'm taking you to Spianata & Co.

Spianata bills itself as a Roman sandwich shop. Trust me: you're left under no illusions that this is exactly what it is when you get there. From the Italian staff, Italian foods and general Italian feel – a row of men, in suits, wolfing down focaccia sandwiches and espressos along a bar in the window – this is like a little Napolitano deli in the heart of the City of London.

The sandwiches are excellent, which is probably something to do with the fact that they make all of their bread on site, fresh, every day. That they keep the bread-making production centre in a great big glass room, rather than stowed away out of site, is probably the best sign you're going to get that they take real pride in their baked goods.

The fillings are legion – all of them reeking with a kind of Italian authenticity; you won't find a cheese and pickle bap in here (although you will find cheese and ham, albeit in the more refined form of mozzarella and prosciutto di speck). There's pear, prosciutto cotto & gorgonzola, talegio, parma ham & walnut, coppa, provolone & radicchio, pollo & funghi, bresaola, rucola & parmesan, to name but a few.

But there's a lot more to get besides sandwiches. There's slices of cake and brownie. There are a range of fantastic pizza slices, just in case you needed that extra carb hit. There are all the run of the mill Italian soft drinks from San Pellegrino and the less usual ones, like Cedrata Tassoni and Gazzosa. And there is, of course, mind-blowing espresso.
Sit in, if you can – it's almost half of the experience. But if you can't, here's a lunch to have at your desk whilst you work – one hand with the red pen, another with the focaccia. Just don’t blame me if you can’t focus on the task you get paid for.
Forget that panini rubbish that Starbucks flog.  This is the real deal.
- GrubsterBoy -

Monday 25 November 2013

Byron Hamburgers

I'm not coming late to this party, I'm coming several days after the party has finished, the clearing up has been done, the organisers have packed their bags and moved on, and no one can even remember there having been a party in the first place.  I know this.
In fact, I'm not really reviewing Byron.  I'm lauding it.
Is it the best burger in London? Is it 'eck.  In an era of burger explosions, of tonnes of little burger chains and gourmet burger joints popping up across town, Byron can’t compete.
So why do I love it?  Easy: It's easy.
That's right: Byron has done for burgers what Pizza Express did for pizza – which is hardly surprising given that both chains are owned by the same group.  What Byron is doing is producing cheap, reliable, tasty burgers in a relaxed setting without the agony of waiting in line for 45 minutes to be fed.  After all, burgers were invented to be fast food - basic and tasty, not haut cuisine.

Too often there's a certain snobbery about food – it should only be the finest, only be the greatest, that we shouldn’t talk about our guilty pleasures of cheesy Doritos or soft-serve ice cream.  Rubbish, says this Grubster – they're good because they're good, and you like them for it.  If you restrict yourself only to ever eating the best-of-the-best, then so be it – but bear in mind that before long you'll be (a) broke; and (b) hungry. 
Oh, and their beer's pretty damn good to. 
So, three cheers for Byron.
 - GrubsterBoy -

Wednesday 20 November 2013

Champagne + Fromage

Champagne + Fromage Brixton is here. 
Opening up in a little shop front in Brixton Village, French Bubbles have established what is essentially a very basic concept restaurant.  Or eating pitstop, actually – I think this is a more accurate description, because whilst you could have your whole supper there it's much more a place to have a drink and a snack than a full blown meal.
The concept is simple: Serve champagne in pretty decent sized glasses and accompany it with French cheeses of charcuterie.  It's a concept that is as old as the hills – or at least the French Alps.  But, like so many things that stand that kind of a test of time, it works because it's great.
Last night, GrubsterGirl and I popped in for a pre-dinner drink and snack.

We will, before long (hopefully), go back and have a proper blow out.  The champagne list is pretty wide-ranging, with a number of options stretching from the regular (albeit, very tasty) champoo through the rosé to the sweet Champagne (I have to admit, I didn't even know that the latter existed). 
The food on offer is great as well.  Choose from a variety of tartine (cheese on toast done français style), platters of cold cuts, baked cheeses in their various boxes, or even go and build your own platter from their extremely extensive collection of fromage.
So who would have thought that such a small place could spark so much controversy?  But it has.  Which is a shame really.  Sure, we want places like Brixton Village to maintain their character, but they'll only do that if there are people going there, eating there, having fun there – which simply won’t happen if we kick up the kind of fuss that has been kicked up.  It's sad – genuinely – to see this kind of vitriol spread about a food outlet like this – one that's dedicated to genuine, quality service.  Shame on the naysayers.
 - GrubsterBoy -

Monday 18 November 2013

Venn Street Market

Living in Clapham has many pros, and sadly a few cons.  But the pros definitely outweigh the cons, and the cons are largely fixable. 
One of the most amazing pros about the place is Venn Street Market.  One of a handful of famers market type affairs springing up around London – and the country more generally – it's a great diversion for a Saturday morning or afternoon.
In the summer, stroll around, enjoy the heat and the continental vibe that the recently remodelled Venn Street (part of the fantastic Clapham Gateway development project) has acquired.

In winter, brave the cold to pick up supplies...

...and  enjoy yourself an autumnal feast from over the Channel for lunch.
These sorts of places are an absolute treasure, and part of what grown and develop for us a local economy as well as a local community.  So show your support, and check out Venn Street Market sometime.
 - GrubsterBoy -

Friday 15 November 2013

Guardian Food Moments #3: Fish Heads & Sperm

Thanks, Guardian.  Just the headline I needed to read whilst eating my lunch.


Tuesday 12 November 2013

Sloe Gin

It's properly November now.  Winter in the air, temperatures dropping, the heating is properly on (yes, it needs more than an extra jumper), hot drinks are de rigueur,  Christmas lights are blinking into action, and we’ve had the first frosts of the year.
What's that you say?  First frosts?  Can only mean one thing: sloe-gin-making-season is upon us.
Making sloe gin – in fact, making any kind of liqueur, pickle, jam, chutney, conserve, etc – I find remarkably satisfying.  There's something so wonderfully homey, so fantastically back-to-basics, down-to-earth about using some ancient and time honoured tradition to preserve flavours and fruits, creating a whole new concoction from the raw materials you have to hand at the time.
A few weeks ago I did damson gin.  This recipe is basically the same, albeit with sloes and a little less sugar.  Both recipes are adapted from the Cottage Smallholder blog, which is fantastic and a must-read for anyone looking to make fruit infusion liqueurs. 
What's more, this has been a bumper year for sloes.  We wandered off to a blackthorn bush we know of nearby and found it positively drooping under the weight of all the fruit – the amount I've made was not the total of the bush's produce; it was the amount picked by the time the pickers got fed up.
450g Sloes
75ml Gin
150g Sugar
Small handful of blanched almonds (Sadly, GG is allergic to nuts, so I left this out – but it's generally accepted that this brings a touch of magic to sloe gin.  Also, you can add three drops of almond essence on bottling, if you prefer.)
1.5 litre kilner jar for steeping
First thing first – I just made the requisite amount from the sloes I had (1,456 grams...) so the pictures show a quantity far outstripping the amounts above.  I just keep the proportions the same.  Second, this will produce a less sweet and sickly concoction.  If you like it sweeter, taste it after straining and add sugar to fit your preferences. 
Second: Choice of gin is not too important.  Don’t go for really, really cheap gin – it's flavoured artificially – so what's the point in making flavoured gin if all you're doing is masking artificial flavourings?  But don’t spend too much on it.  I generally use supermarket brand gin, which is good enough (although having said that, it's probably artificial...).  I also had a rummage around the spirits cupboard and found quite a few almost-empty bottles to use up.  Someone will probably say you shouldn’t go mixing gin, but meh.  Also, vodka works equally well with both recipes – last year we made damson vodka, not gin – but we went for gin this time around.
1. Pick your sloes.  As ever, please don’t go stealing fruit from other people's trees – you never know whether they plan on doing exactly the same thing, and there's nothing more depressing than going to a carefully nurtured patch only to find that someone's nicked all your fruit.  Just ask the landowner – you can even offer a bottle of the finished product by way of payment, if you're feeling generous.
Sloes are seriously beautiful fruit, too. 

And perfect for Instagram-ing...
Before you go any further, now's a good time to clean them thoroughly.  Pluck out their little stalks and remove all the leaves.  I forgot to do this, and it turned into a bit of a nightmare later on.  Remember, if you leave this stuff in it will infect the flavour of the finished gin.
2. Freeze the sloes overnight.  This does one thing with two bonuses: It the freezing juice bursts all the little cells inside, leading to: One, the release of more juice; and two, it simulates the frosts, breaking down the cellulose inside which (I understand, although only vaguely) improves the flavour.  This year the sloes came early, so I couldn’t really wait until they'd been properly punished by the frosts.  Fiona at Cottage Smallholder ran an experiment to see what produced the best sloe gin – sloes frozen by the frost, sloes frozen in the freezer, or sloes unfrozen altogether.  The result was the frosts, but the freezer in second.  So unless you're in a position (a) second guess what the weather might do; and (b) be on hand to pick them as soon as the frosts have arrived, this method seems the best bet.
I simply packed them all into freezer bag and lay flat in the freezer for overnight.

They came out looking fantastic.  You can almost taste the wonderfully, Christmassy spirit already. 

Whilst they're frozen they're like little marbles – they're the right size, and they sound, look, feel and roll like little marbles.  Ever so cool.
3. Defrost them thoroughly.  Laying them flat on a baking tray helps speed this up. 
4. You need to prick your sloes.  Some people say that freezing them does this for you, but I'm not really satisfied with that, to be honest.  So get out a cocktail stick (or several), put on an apron and get picking.
They are squirty little blighters, so be careful – don’t do this kind of work over an antique table whilst sitting on a cream coloured sofa.  Like we did.
Once you're done, you should have a bowl full of sloes and they're juice.  Don’t waste anything by washing up the bowl now.  I pour a glassful of gin in there, give it a rinse, and add it to the steeping jar to capture all the – but I'm getting ahead of myself...

5. Tip all the sloes into the jar.  Add the sugar and your almonds (if using them).  Pour the gin over the top.  Keep the bottles – you'll see why below. 

Seal and give it a shake.
6. Now go stick it in a cupboard, shaking daily for the first week or so, until all of the sugar has dissolved. 
7. Leave it alone.  Seriously.  This brew needs a good six months, minimum.  Leaving it too long will ruin the flavour, sure, but that's unlikely to happen until they've had a year or more. 
8. At the end of the steeping time, strain and bottle (told you you'd need those bottles).  Strain it through a fine cheesecloth or muslin.  Don’t be tempted to squeeze the bag – it won’t do any good, and will only add sediment, which you don’t want.  If you have the time, leave it to drip overnight.
I actually did last year's batch a few weeks back, so here are some pictures of that process.
After ten months in a cupboard...


...and bottled for maturation.

9. Now it needs time to mature – sorry, but really does.  Leave it another six months, minimum.  Remember – you're making sloe gin for next Christmas, not this Christmas.
10. Drink.  A fantastic cocktail is what a friend of mine calls the Sloegasm: A measure of sloe gin topped up with Champagne or prosecco or Cava or English fizz – basically, an English Kir Royale.
 - GrubsterBoy -
PS: As a quick note: This sloe gin is made by simply steeping the sloes in gin for a long time.  There is an alternative method that involves fermentation.  But I'm saving that for next year.

Thursday 7 November 2013

The Candy Store at Callooh Callay

Whisk(e)y and I get on well.  Have done for a number of years.  A very large number of years, in fact.  If I have to choose a cocktail on the spot, I'll always go for an old fashioned (and be often disappointed that they don’t seem able to produce one to my exacting specifications.  If I find myself in a cocktail bar, first thing I'll do is start leafing through the menu in search of the next whisky cocktail to down.
I also have a famously sweet tooth – something that I think manifests itself in this blog – whether through singing the praises of Mr Whippy or making homemade maraschino cherries or mixing in sugar-coated onions with toad-in-the-hole.
So when I heard about Callooh Callay's most recent installation, The Candy Store, the first thing I thought was: I have got to go.
Billed as 'whisky, cocktails and candy', it's a themed bar that actually works – something we're not too to, sadly enough.  It's situated in the upstairs room of Callooh Callay, which I understand has been being used by Callooh Callay for some time now for specialist pop-up cocktail bars – a bit like one of those artists' studios, with different folk 'in residence' every couple of months, but a lot, lot cooler.  The upstairs room has to be reached through the backroom, which in turn has to be reached by walking through a big, mirrored wardrobe.  I'll confess something: my heart sank a little at this point.  Too much, way way way too much, has been put into the whole prohibition-era, hidden away, secret bar thing, and it's really beginning to hack me off.  I had a horrific experience with this at The Evans & Peel Detective Agency last year, so the moment I saw this method of entrance, I balked. 
In keeping with the name the entire place is done up like an old fashioned sweetshop, from the red and white striped wallpaper to the countless jars of penny chews dotted around the place – all of which you're invited to help yourself from.

The drinks themselves are pretty impressive too, but then that's sort of what you'd expect from a cocktail bar with the pedigree of Callooh Callay behind it – remember, this is a place that has been named amongst Time Out's best bars in the Capital
I kicked off proceedings with the charmingly named Love You Lots Like Jelly Tots (a bit of a mouthful, but what do you expect from a place that gives you unlimited free gobstoppers with your drinks?).  It was fantastically well done on every count – the perfect blend of sweet and salt (another of my favourite combinations) with the smoky, savoury flavours of the Royal Lochnagar cutting through the fruitiness of the lime and sweetness of the briottet coquelicot (a liqueur made from poppies – honestly!). The jam is wonderful too – who knew that jam and whisky made such good bedfellows?  That it was served in three little snifter glasses – like individual jelly tots – didn't hurt one bit.

My friend and partner in crime, Victoria (GrubsterGirl is, sadly, rather adverse to whisky of any kind), ordered up the Berry Jelly Collins – a medley of Speyside, Chambord and other lovely stuff, served with a little shot glass of raspberry and prosecco jelly on the side.  I like drinks with stuff served on the side – it's nice to have a bit extra.  As for the drink?  Equally superb.
Between courses (booze courses, that is) we had a couple of snacks.  Sadly, their beer battered chips had come off the menu – apparently (according to our server) because they were "just too intense".  Whether that meant too greasy or that they just said really awkward things that weren't even meant to be a joke we shall never know.  The chips we did have were a little disappointing, in that there were exactly five of them and they were about two inches thick both ways, and four inches long.  Genuinely, carry that thing on the street and you're liable to be arrested for carrying an offensive weapon. 
We also had onion rings, however, and they were bloody marvellous.  I basically had to restrain Victoria from eating the lot. 
Also (although we didn’t have them but did see them) they had a trio of sliders going with some interesting toppings.  Definitely looked like they'd be worth a try if you wanted something a touch more substantial.
But wait, I'm leaving out the most exciting bit of food – the menu!  That's right.  They whole thing was made of rice paper and edible.  So we ate it.

Victoria particularly enjoyed the eating of it.
Back to the drinks then, we decided on another round.  I hit up the Tipsy Dipsy, whilst my collaborator had the Davey Dee’s Delightful Dream.
Mine was, sadly, a bit of a disappointment.  You throw lemon juice and prosecco into a glass and give it a sherbet rim you're going to end up with something pretty tart, regardless of how much poppy liqueur you throw in there.  For me it was just too tart – it should have been called something like Sherbet Sourz (a la Haribo Sourz).  But pause a minute here: because my associate adored it.  Absolutely loved it – specifically, the intense sourness of it.  So I'm not going to write it off like that. 
The Dream was similarly a touch disappointing – although still nice, in my view.  It was billed as an alcoholic Parma Violet, and laced with violet liqueur, but sadly failed almost entirely to deliver on the promised violet essence.  Still, a good drink in itself; if its only crime is not living up to the magic of our childhood rememberings, then we can hardly criticise – if we did, they'd be hardly anything we can look at with pleasure now we're grown-up. 
If you like whisk(e)y at all then do go, it's a great little place.  Make sure you book, though – we saw people turned away and there's only a half dozen or so tables.  Also, it's a bar in residence – so it's only there for a little while longer.  We went shortly before it was due to close, but you've all been very fortunate: given its success, Callooh Callay are keeping the Candy Store open until the beginning of next year.
 - GrubsterBoy -

Credit: Photos 1, 2 and 12 taken by Victoria Tills, my most excellent friend and generally good egg who confesses that her photo-taking skills post whisky imbibition are not up to much, but I think are still pretty damn good.  She got a photo on the BBC too, so she's, like, well talented, innit.