This week I ate at Sardine, which is just off the City Road, a location that, I think, a few years ago would have been unthinkable for a smart restaurant. Even now, with every other building around it an art gallery or architect’s office, this area between Hoxton and Islington is slightly forbidding and unknowable. Further East is where the centre of the city’s new restaurant vanguard lies, with The Clove Club and Lyle’s and the rest. But rather than the New British cooking they offer, Sardine’s style is food from Southwest France cooked over a wood fire. It had been a dull, damp day in high summer and we were ready for it.
Sardine opened only a few weeks ago. It is new enough that photos of it and the food it serves pop up on my Twitter and Instagram feeds every few minutes. I expect it’s called Sardine because diners are fitted in like fish in a can. You knock the backs of peoples’ heads as you squeeze through to your seats. It was almost full, so there were many heads to knock. The chairs, Thonet bentwood, reminding us that we’re eating French food, were arranged close together along a communal, zinc-topped table. There are smaller tables along one side, and an open kitchen along the other. You may be more comfortable in either. The room is loud with the noise of people trying to be heard over other people trying to be heard. We ordered a pichet de rosé and some glaçons. We looked at the reassuringly short menu; better to do a few things well than many things badly. Read More
It’s a bit of a surprise to open a cookbook in 2016 and there not be any lush photography to seduce me. It’s a long time since I last bought a cookbook without pictures. It reflects, possibly, the slightly monk-like food philosophy of the author, who values localism and seasonality highly. Photography is expensive, as are photographers, and £20 feels a bit steep for a book without them. Actually, I didn’t buy this. Faber, which doesn’t often publish cookbooks, generously sent me a copy, saving me £20. However, this isn’t a regular cookbook. There are recipes, of course there are, but, unlike almost every other cookbook in the shop, reading this will not just give you a better dinner, but will make you a better cook, too.
I once ate at Konstam at the Prince Albert, Oliver Rowe’s Kings Cross restaurant, which closed five or six years ago. It only, I think, used ingredients sourced from within the M25*, the motorway that circles London, like a moat. (Moatorway?) That is a romantic proposal, but localism and food miles are about as complicated as any ideas in the world of food. Of course there are virtues in not transporting food thousands of miles, but how would Kenyan farmers do without fine bean money, Peruvian farmers without asparagus revenue? Fish swim in the Thames, but not necessarily fish I want for supper. I’m not saying tomatoes grown in Northern Europe are worthless, but I do think they are worth less than ones grown under warm, Southern sun. I couldn’t, wouldn’t, want to cook without lemons. Besides, we aren’t medieval peasants, relying on the fields and forests around our hamlet. Read More
As an extra to my post on East London Food, here are some pictures I took at Beigel Bake a while ago. As you can see, they bake their beigels on the premises and they are exactly how I expect a beigel to be; chewy and a bit of a struggle to pull a piece away. I grew up when it was spelled beigel, and pronounced buy-gel, as they do here. The modern, doughy, bread-with-a hole-incarnation, the bagel, bay-gel, leaves me cold. Boiling them briefly before they’re baked is what gives them their chewiness. Read More
This week I hoped to be driving around France. I was going south, via Tours, Poitiers and Bordeaux. Then west, through Provence, over to Lyon, north again, and home. By the time I’d return my car boot, and, I hoped, my stomach, too, would be full. But there’s a blockade of oil refineries, or something, and I had a picture of being stranded on a distant country lane with no petrol or phone reception. Distant French country lanes can be very distant, you probably won’t find a pub and a Macdonalds on a roundabout 200m away. Plus, there’s a three-month ban on foie gras because of fears of avian flu. So it was settled: I’m at home and my tour de France has been postponed, maybe until next year. Désolé.
For compensation I have a copy of East London Food. It’s a sort of guidebook that you can keep on your coffee table. You can pick a dove grey or minty green cover, but my choice of pink may tell you all you’ll ever need to know about me. It’s something local for the locavores of East London; a tour of some of the most interesting independent suppliers, producers, shops and restaurants between, roughly, Stoke Newington to the west and Upton Park to the east, and it’s quite my thing. So much so that I wish I’d had the idea, written it and taken the pictures. As it is those things have been done very well by Rosie Burkett, (words), and Helen Cathcart, (photography). Read More
So far on Siberia I’ve only looked at cookbooks from the bestseller lists, books by established writers and chefs, books, on the whole, with large initial print runs. Maybe Five Quarters was more of a punt, but there was a lot of good noise about that before it came out. And it is, of course, superb. Quality makes a difference to anything and usually a good difference.
In front of me I have Best Kitchen Basics, which may be more esoteric than the others. It is by Mark Best, a chef I hardly knew of before, which is perhaps not surprising as he works in Australia. It is here that I should confess I have a thing for Australian cookbooks, ever since I first picked up a copy of Sydney Food by Bill Granger, (in Books for Cooks in Notting Hill, which still doesn’t have a functioning website), before, ahem, anyone here had heard of Bill Granger, and I was sold. The promise of modern, easy, stylish food and cool, urban living was hard to resist. That must have been fifteen or twenty years ago and since then I have yearned to experience Australia’s food culture, indeed, Australia’s food, and, of course, Australia. I almost went a couple of years ago: I was sitting in a travel agent, about to buy a ticket, but I thought about the twenty-six hour flight and my finger stayed poised above the buttons on the machine. My pin number was never entered and I have never entered Australia. One day I will go by ship and sit on deck with a tartan blanket over my knees, reading a thick history of someone or something, while sipping beef tea with a big splash of brandy in it. One day. Read More
Where I live, in a smartish part of North West London, local restaurants are, at best, old fashioned, and at worst off-putting. There’s all the usual ItalianIndianChineseGreek, and pubs that serve the same thing that pubs – let’s not call them gastropubs, anymore – serve everywhere. I don’t mean that any of them are bad, although some aren’t good, but I do mean that none excite me. There is an Iranian, which, at least, is less expected than the others, but what there isn’t, what there isn’t in spades, is a good, modern, British, and good, modern, British excites me a lot.
I went the other night with my regular restaurant companion, Camilla, to Pidgin, in a part of Hackney that’s difficult to get to without a car or taxi, and either will need a functioning sat nav. It sits in a small parade of shops that tell of the trendification of the area since I lived close by for three months in 1990, in the square that Eastenders’ Albert Square was based on. I don’t mean that my going and it coming up are connected, but you never know. It is surrounded by houses that I guess go for £2 million or more, as well as social housing. I would think it’s a nice place to live, as long as you don’t want to leave, and Pidgin makes it even nicer, and less likely that you’d want to. Read More
One of my objections to the theatre is that it’s on at the time I like to eat dinner. Still, once a year, I buy a ticket to something that I hope will persuade me the theatre is worth eating supper early for. Last year was Gypsy with Imelda Saunton, and that was definitely worth it. This year it was Funny Girl’s turn.
As I remember the story from the film, Barbra Streisand marries Omar Sharif, but it doesn’t work out because he can’t sing. He might even have gone to prison for it, I’m a bit hazy on that. It’s interesting when non-singers are cast in singing roles, by which I mean “interesting”; see also Clint Eastwood in Paint Your Wagon, Pierce Brosnan in Mama Mia, and practically the whole cast of Everyone Says I Love You. I remember reading that Hewyl Bennett was offered Michael York’s part in Cabaret but when he saw it was a musical turned it down without reading the script, knowing he can’t sing, but not knowing that the role doesn’t call for it. Hewyl could have had Michael’s career, but he wouldn’t have had my respect. There’s a lesson here, I’m sure, if only I could see it. Anyway. Read More