I’ve been out intensively tasting again – in tune with the crackling leaves, blue skies and increasingly crisp air of autumnal London. As always, our capital’s food isn’t always of these shores nor is it always inside walls. While going at my usual accelerated pace through Islington the other day, I rounded a sharp corner and almost fell headfirst into a giant paella pan. This is it.
Serendipitous indeed, as the saffron yellow and fishy-chickeny aromas seemed pretty genuine to my alerted senses. This was going to make up for the paella I missed at the recent Taste Spain event at Borough Market (which incidentally as well as generous and delicious also came up with some great product discoveries). In Islington the rub came though when I started chatting to the behatted gentleman wielding an outsized spoon while his paella gently simmered. He turned out to be French, not even from the Spanish border but from deep in la France profonde of the centre. Ah well, no matter, globalisation bounds on. I made sure to pass by again an hour later when the paella was ready. Despite its Gallic origin it hit the spot – creamy with a good dose of prawns, chunks of chicken and that unbeatable saffron backtaste.
In terms of authentic foreign feeds, I did pretty well at a Mexican restaurant that I finally landed in last week: Mestizo, in Hampstead Road (http://www.mestizomx.com/main.html). It’s been on my list for around two years and inspired at least three aborted attempts to dine there with various friends – not Mestizo’s fault. Having recently tried out and been a bit disappointed (twice) by the much hyped Wahaca, I was keen to compare. So we were soon scanning the menu, margaritas in hand. appetites on the alert. The restaurant has a sharp designer edge to it, with deep blood-red walls (very Hispanic), clean lines and stunning Werner Panton-esque lamps. However my mental redlights flashed when I tasted the margarita – watery and with no depth (or do I mean no tequila?) whatsoever. It was only later when paying the bill that we noticed their price – EIGHT QUID!!! Now that’s a lot, in fact it’s nigh on criminal. Maybe they were extra-large – we were too busy chatting to notice.
However the food was delicious in an unpretentious way, served by laid-back young Mexicans and altogether whisked me back to the hip Condesa area of Mexico City. If only. After devouring our shared antojitos in record time – tacos with cochinita pibil and nopales (cactus leaf) plus a well seasoned guacamole (I have to say far better than Wahaca’s) – we moved on to the serious stuff. The Nachos looked messy but turned out to be a pretty appetising classic of chicken, chorizo, fiery chilli, cheese, onion, tomato and tortilla chips – here you are, in full technicolour – plus a starry man’s shirt.
Another friend had the Pozole, a traditional chicken broth with corn dumplings – quite subtle but somehow chiming less Mexican. Those chiles were sorely missed. But the piece de resistance had to be the Molcajete, a word which actually refers to the lava-stone container. Inside sizzled a harmonious mix of grilled beef pieces with spicey salsa roja, cheese. huge hunks of juicy chorizo, spring onion, coriander and creamy avocado. Warm tortillas stood by for the mop-up. Yum. It was perfect for the chilly night – and to soak up that watery margarita.
As a contrast to my intensely metropolitan life, last weekend I escaped to friends in Suffolk. As it’s only a couple of hours from London, it is far from being country-bumpkin-land. Quite the contrary, there are pockets of sophistication thanks to a good sprinkling of Londoners living there, either part or full-time. So, foodwise at least, things are rocking. To kick off, The Station Inn, a mellow gastro-pub in Framlingham gave us the perfect light, inventive and affordable lunch in a low-key but cossetting setting. It was a toss-up between Kidneys on toast or Mackerel fried in turmeric on soya noodles; I went for the latter and was as content as a Suffolk pig – well almost. Grunt.
Come evening we were helping kick off a new Fish Cafe and Restaurant on the outskirts of Aldeburgh: The Brasserie – in pic above. This moved up a notch or so both in style, scale and ambition, with four inter-connecting dining-rooms plastered with magazine covers – including some ace vintage Private Eyes – and plenty of funky lighting. For this inaugural night, the owner was determined to get feedback from a selection of enlightened palates of the area. So, fizz in hand, we were seated to embark on a tasting menu of eight courses. The catch was that we were also given a form and pen to fill in our comments, positive or otherwise. My table proved to be pretty boisterous, and by the time we were halfway down the menu a fair number of wine-bottles had bitten the dust. Pens fell under the table and the conversation flowed. It’s early days yet and we decided certain dishes needed reviewing, so I promise to return. It was nonetheless a great evening.