Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Albion

There's always a reason for Red-Wine-O'Clock. This time it was to bring friends CL & M visiting from Adelaide to a cosy Sunday lunch. Erm, maybe dinner.

The Albion in Islington is buried amongst a leafy neighbourhood, surrounded by grand houses and away from the hoi polloi of Upper Street. A Georgian house, it's spacious and feels as if you're exploring a large abode as you walk through its chambers. There is a large enough outside area which in summer must be a treat to sit in. I was hoping we could have still caught the Sunday Roast menu but they stop at 4pm. So nevermind, the dinner menu was still delightful..

Roast Chicken with Girolles, New Potatoes in a Red Wine Jus: Chicken is always a debatable item on a menu, most think it's a cop-out from restaurants seeing as it's an ingredient which is easily obtained and can be cooked with kid gloves on. Au contraire. Something that is easily cooked is not necessarily well cooked. The chicken was well seasoned, moist, and comforting. Earthy mushrooms like girolles which are now in season are such a great partner to a juicy chicken leg. The red wine jus was of perfect consistency and depth.

Roast duck, Red Cabbage and Potato Fondant: Doesn't that duck leg just call your name over and over again? Fantastically crispy skin pulled aside so easily, to reveal dark meat that collapsed without any fuss. The red cabbage was sour, rich and slightly flavoured with cinnamon spice. Sadly, the dish was let down by an undercooked potato fondant. Where was my fluffy inside sealed by a crunchy coating? Alas, I had to pinch some triple-cooked chips from a friend!

Admittedly, slightly strange to include a random side dish but this beetroot salad was fresh and well flavoured by a parsley-herby-dressing. And did I say Red-Wine-O'Clock? Just about caught the medium Chianti we had with the meal in the piccie.

Sticky Toffee Pudding with Ice Cream: Dessert-O'Clock already! I was in a dilemma with this one. The pudding had a lovely, fluffy texture, but if the clue was in the name, sticky it was not. The sauce was a smooth and luxurious butterscotch which welcomed the ice cream and the little crumble underneath with open arms.

Cambridge Burnt Cream: hmmmm, not a fan I'm afraid. Loved the custardy taste, but overall I felt mislead. Surely the name suggests an English take on the archetypal French creme brulee? Creme brulee, Burnt Cream? And why attempt to caramelise the top when it's too soft, denying the customer the pleasure of cracking it?

Apple and Blackberry Sponge: Sumptuous. Spongy and soft fruity topping that gave way to a crusty bottom and nicely accompanied by custard.

Bakewell Tart: Now that was baked-extremely-well. It was almost like a frangipane with the biscuity bite from the almonds. Apologies for the slightly rampaged picture, always a sign of a popular dessert!

A super venue for an atmospheric drink with friends, and clearly a good British menu. However, perhaps let down by the details. On the upper scale for price for a gastropub though remembering that this is the restaurant bit, rather than the pub. A meal for four, 2 courses each, 1 bottle of red, a couple of pre-dinner drinks was £30 a head. I am curious to explore the actual Sunday Roast menu, and would love to find an occasion to do the whole Suckling Pig! Islington, anyone?

Albion on Urbanspoon

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Chin Chin Laboratories

He's been all over the news, and finally I get to see what this "nitro" ice-cream parlour is all about. Ahrash Akbari-Kalhur, a former City broker, has set up the first ice-cream parlour in Europe using liquid nitrogen to speed up the freezing process that turns cream into that luscious dessert. Wacky! I love stories like this: nine-to-fiver decides to ditch the rat-race to become gastro-scientist with a lot of flair. It was a sunny day in buzzing Camden town when we went to visit this thriving institution...

Chin Chin Laboratories is situated on Camden Lock Place, amongst the strange, the tacky and the gloriously bizarre crowd in Camden. We get there for around 3pm, and there has been an ongoing queue since they open for the day. So exactly what is everyone waiting for?

Step 1: Ahrash pours his creamy mixture into a sort of giant magimix. It's manned (and womanned) by the man himself and his wife, so no wonder it's always a bit hectic. There are always 3 flavours on offer: Vanilla, Chocolate and the Special of the Day. Today the special is an exotic Lychee & Rosewater which has my name all over it. 

Step 2: Out of some very dangerous looking appliances, comes some theatrical clouds of liquid nitrogen into a  metal jug. Oooo!

Step 3: Into the magimix mixture it goes. Clouds still swirling, the magimix is switched on, and after some whirring and chemical reactions, voila! Ice cream is born in a ridiculously short amount of time! Ahrash will willingly explain the process to any non-scientific brain, and works frantically to take orders.

Step 4: Does this remind you of chemistry class? The pippettes, beakers and lab bottles are all immaculately displayed, holding exciting toppings you can choose from. Everything from popping candy, lavendar sugar, sugared nuts to chocolates is available, and then decide on a sauce as well. That day we had either sea salt caramel, raspberry or blackberry. 

Result! My Lychee & Rosewater concoction was delicately flavoured and so smooth. I loved the sea salt caramel that gave it more punch, ending with a little crunch from toasted and sugared peanuts. The flavours mixed and melted in that awesome way ice cream and toppings do in the end, ensuring a very empty cup!

Though slightly gimmicky, and I wonder how long it will be till there are other copycats, it is a delightfully quirky indulgence. Absolutely worth a visit, and I wonder what the next specials will be! £3.95 gets you one cup, one topping and one sauce, a fun demonstration and chat with our inventors. 

Chin Chin Laboratorists on Urbanspoon

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Yum Cha

What are your top hangover cures? An unctuous, juicy and even slightly stodgy I dare say, bite of dim sum is surely high on the list.

We've walked past Yum Cha on Chalk Farm Road countless times, and I finally get my jaded self there. It's a good mix of clientèle, and lots of fellow Chinese people. And you know what they say about seeing lots of Chinese folk in a Chinese restaurant..

Fried Taro Croquette: the crispy and wispy coating was light and crunchy, and the taro paste inside was of good mushy consistency. Good chunks of pork and prawn inside too.

Honey Roast Pork Bun: what looks like mozzarella are fluffy buns filled with roasted pork mince with a honey-barbequed sauce. Good fluff to filling ratio!

 Shanghai Siew Long Pao: I love these little critters, they are a dumpling with some cunning liquid inside, so when you craftily bite into one, it's a burst of soup that swirls around your mouth. The skin was beautifully light and hoorah, I didn't dribble first time!

Pork and Prawn Shumai: A real classic, these were compacted bites of prawn and pork that were roughly chopped, giving me that savoury cure for the night before! Excellent flavour.

Steamed spare ribs in black bean sauce: slightly disappointing, these were actually quite bland and tough, without much evidence of black bean flavour! When these are good, it's a pleasing job of biting around the bones to grab a tasty morsel.

Coriander, Bamboo and Prawn Croquette: it looks slightly lonely there, but I couldn't hold my friends down before taking the photo! This came with a sweet mayonnaise, and I regret to say I was rather indifferent on this one.

Turnip Cake: Mmmm, we're back on track! Yet another great choice to line the stomach, I adore that crispy outside and moist cake that is dotted with chinese sausage.

Fried Dough Stick Cheung Fun: I like describing Cheung Fun as Chinese cannelloni, it's quite simply a tubular noodle that holds fillings. This version sees the silky white outside coat a fried dough stick, so you go from smooth to crunch in the same bite. Pour a little soya sauce mixture on top and it's all good.

Worcester Sauce Marinated Japanese Baby Octopus: don't those red lovelies look striking! I'm a big fan of octopus, and have never had these little babies. They were slightly tangy, mostly savoury and their juicy bounce was a great texture.

Five Spice Beef Tongue & Shoulder: can you guess we're getting a little adventurous here. I loved the cold cuts of Chinese meat which had a peppery bite amidst the five spice flavour. Both meats were rather tender and moreish.

Steamed Lotus Leaf Rice with Chicken and Shrimp: more stodge to nurse me! Another less exciting dish as the usual earthy flavours from the mushroom or leaf weren't very forthcoming.

Minced Beef Cheung Fun: an interesting one as the beef inside the cheung fun had fused together to look less like mince and more like a slab. I would have this one again.

My expectations had been raised since reading such glowing reviews on the web, and off other food blogs. For the price point ( for ALL of those dishes, including drinks and service, it came to a very modest £14 per head between four people), it's a more than passable dim sum standard, plus off-the-beaten-track dishes like the octopus and beef tongue are done very well. I'm not bowled over, but I will come back as the service is pleasant and they work hard getting all those orders out! With 50% off the bill between Monday-Wednesday after 5pm, school night drinking just got easier!

Yum Cha on Urbanspoon

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Scrumptious Sicily: Part 2

It's really the simple things that make a good holiday a great holiday. In this low-cost airline era, getting to a decent beach given the right time of the year, is hardly a challenge. The challenge is finding those small, and seemingly easy details which need to be done well to elevate the holiday standards. And these were my highlights on those "icing-on-the-cake" touches..

Granita & Gelato

We try to be jack-of-all-trades these days, it's not nearly enough to just be darned good at one thing. Sicilians (and indeed Italians) laugh in the face of this, especially when it comes to these icy deserts, judging by how many graniterias and gelatarias are located all over the island.

Who can resist this glossy, full-bodied and profusely indulgent ice cream variety. I say "variety" of ice cream because it's not really like the regular stuff, is it? If gelato was a lady, it would be the generously busty, wholesome and magnetic opera-singing diva on stage!

Yet another Sicilian special, granita. Much less full-bodied, this is the bikini-clad, flippant fling you only have when it's a beach holiday. I love how both gelato and granita come in infinite flavours, there are whole boards filled with every possible imaginable and unimaginable flavour. Above was a flirty cherry granita with chopped bits of the fruit mixed in, a perfect apres-sun cooler!


No surprises that an island bears great fish, it's a particular type of tuna that fills these waters though. Off the North West coast of Sicily are the Egadi Islands, of which the largest is Favignana and is a sublime little day trip. We chanced upon an adorable semi-Tunisian style cafe called Camarillo Brillo, and these two fantastic tuna dishes kept us smiling:

Super-duper tuna burger! Not sure that I've ever had a tuna burger before, this was the real business. The pate was firm but succulent, and had roasted pine nuts mixed in. Slightly sauteed chips with fresh pesto was a darling accompaniment,

Tuna with raisins, almonds, tomatoes and balsamic glaze. Sounds incredibly simple, but again it was like tasting the earth and sea on a plate. Remember, it's all in the small details!

And finally, I completely digress food-wise with this highlight, but it was so worth showing:-

Favignana is one of those beautifully unspoilt and untouched tiny islands where time just stands still. The shore is still amazingly shallow even 100 metres into the sea, so you can walk a fair bit into the sparkling azure waters. What better post-lunch rendezvous?

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Scrumptious Sicily: Part 1

The August Bank Holiday ends, we have a London Tube strike and the days will now get shorter. Call me Little Miss Happy right now! Despite the uncomfortable truth, I'm still basking in the glory of the most awesome mini-holiday in Sicily.

Sicily is the largest island in the Mediterranean, and it's rich historical influences of Arabic, Asian and of course European provide the scene to many Italian food heroes. You know these suspects: arancine (risotto balls with fillings such as cheese, vegetables or meat), granita (the icier version of sorbet, in more flavours than there are fruits) to caponata (chopped aubergine stewed with tomatoes usually served with as an appetiser).

I debated about what to blog about with Sicily, it's a true foodie di-, even multi-lemma when literally all that comes into contact with your gastro senses is truly mind-blowing. For me, Italian food is a direct product of it's fertile land, glorious weather and stunning coastline. As Sicily is an island, seafood is the prima donna with vegetables and wine being its starlet chorus!

So I decided to report back on my top two discoveries from this trip, and what a job. It was like picking the winner of a beauty parade of palate pleasers. In a special two-part series from Hungry Female, here are the first two highlights...

First, my new favourite pasta shape: Busiate!

This curly number is a pasta sauce dream. Essentially it is tagliatelle with a perm, and a tremendous friend to all kinds of pasta sauces since its twists and turns collect any chunky or smooth bit of food it can tangle with. As a result you get ideal quantities of food and pasta in one mouthful, genius!


Above, this was my first taste of busiate: aubergine roasted to tender awesome-ness, tuna, in a tomato stew. Below, full-on seafood busiate!

Busiate makes appearances all over Sicilian menus, one sauce I didn't get around trying was pesto alla Trapanese, which I assume refers to it's birthplace of Trapani, a port town an hour away from San Vito.

We were lucky enough to chance upon some busiate making, by a quintessential Italian mamma:-

These tiny delicatessens are adorably independent. Our little cook was drying pasta ready for the next day, and all that was in her matchbox shop was pasta and pasta sauces. One type of twist I could do again and again.

Second up, something they call Sicilian caviar, Bottarga.

(image from whatdoyouthink.wordpress.com)

As Sicily's main fish is a variety of tuna, fish roe is obviously an easily acquired item. It is massaged, dried and cured with sea salt to form a tube or slab. It can then be sprinkled as a topping or ingredient, such as in the heavenly pizza above. Those familiar with the Chinese, Spanish or Portugese kitchen will understand the concept of dried salted fish as a flavouring, the advantage of this is that it's instant, uber, fish-a-licious-ness! No hydration required to get the sea salt hit. 

Hang on for part 2! There was really so much to write about these magnificent flavours. If you ever find yourself on this dreamy island, you must visit Dal Cozzaro (where I had the aubergine and tuna busieta), Syrah (the seafood busiate) and Il Timone (for pizza). Service is always relaxed, friendly and oozing with charm. The average price for a pasta or pizza was between 8-10 euros. 

“In France food is all about the genius of cooks, in Italy it’s all about the glory of God.”

How true!