Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Whitstable Oyster Festival 2010

Exactly how many oysters could you eat in one day? A daft challenge for those who think their stomachs are bottomless pits for great seafood, but believe you me it can be very testing!

The annual Whitstable Oyster Festival in Kent is definitely one way of finding out. Jumping on a train from London down to the Kentish coast of Whitstable, it was a gloriously sunny day. One of the hotspots in the UK for prime oysters, it is a week-long extravaganza to celebrate the harvest of these silky, grey and treasured mollusks, which is perfectly described as a kiss from the sea.

The festival kicks off with the Landing of the Oysters, where a boat comes into shore, nets of oysters carried by local fishermen on a traditional yoke. The oysters are blessed and presented to Whitstable by the local clergy to the Lord Mayor. A small portion then gets presented to restaurants and eateries in the town via the Oyster Parade.

Crowds come from near and far to witness the official start of the festival on the pretty pebbly beach

They arrive! Fanfare and applause follow the landing

And then it's festivities galore! There are oysters left, right, centre and you will never have seen as many a person shucking oysters non-stop than ever before. It's a fabulous buzz of energy and celebration as visitors are lapping up this oysterlicious wonderment!

However, to those clued up and informed folk, there is the saying where one should only eat oysters if there is a "R" in the month. Whitstable's oyster season only comes into full force in September/October, the festival is held at this time simply out of tradition. The juicy and plump natives are in circulation but in small supply, what is in obscene abundance are the smaller, though still enjoyable, rock oysters.

And where there are oysters, there lies other tasty crustacean delicacies. Explore the stalls and you will find great quality whelks, cockles, crab, lobster, scallops and clams! Walking through from the beach to the harbour is the heart of the festival. Stalls selling a myriad of local concoctions, such as preserves, snacks, handicrafts and non-seafood (the venison burger was ace!). Whitstable Brewery's bar by Long Beach also stages live music to coincide with the activities.

Now should you have finished the eat-a-thon, had a lager out on the beach, dozed, woken up and still felt the need to gorge, one recommendation would be to make a booking at the Whitstable Oyster Company restaurant. Situated past the harbour on the coast, it faces a wonderful broad beach.

And if only I did have another stomach, I would have eaten alot more than this:-

Razor Clams: What's not to love about this dramatic elongated version of the succulent clam? These came with a finger-lickin' good garlic butter.

Seared Scallops: served with their coral, these were so meaty and enlivened by a squirt of lemon and balsamic vinegar reduction.

Roasted Seabass: this was a thing of beauty. Soft fleshy white meat, roasted with garlic cloves and rosemary, this is what I call a festive dish!

Lobster and Crab: Does it get any better?! If I had to choose, the crab's sweet meat had the edge over the lobster, but both were supremely fresh and au natural aside from a lick of garlic mayo.

Apparently it does get better, when you order the homemade honeycomb ice cream. There were 3 other desserts, but this was my clear favourite. Great ice cream for me is slightly grainy, slightly glossy and I can't resist anything which has catchments of crunchy comb finding it's way to your tongue. Tick, tick, tick!

Just 1.5 hours out of London on the train, this is a noteworthy day out on the foodie calendar. Flock with the locals, and immerse yourself in the town's charming offerings. I guarantee you'll be making a booking to return in October when the native oysters are in all their glory! 

Half a dozen native oysters in the festival were £4.50, or £6.50 for a dozen rock oysters. 4 starters, 3 mains, 4 desserts and 2 bottles of bubbly were £40 amongst 6 at the Whitstable Oyster Company.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Blueprint Cafe @ The Design Museum

How have I never been here?! On the second floor, attached to the Design Museum, I was treated to a romantic dinner (don't all be sick at once) by the boy. Flanked by the majestic Tower Bridge to the left and shiny Canary Wharf to the right, this is an impressive view to behold. With these top to floor windows, and being this close to the Thames, it's one of those "Yeah, I'm in London!" moments!

We loved the trendy but unpretentious feel, the restaurant was buzzing and full of good energy. There is a little balcony bar to the side of the main room which you can have a pre-dinner drink at, as well as drink in the view.

Let's get started. This was the Eel sandwich with picked onions: Eel was rather like mackerel here - salty, flaky and full of yummy unctuous fishiness. A harmonious ensemble of texture (crusty toast), flavour from the eel and contrast to the vinegary onions that cut through that oil wonderfully.

Squid, samphire and peas: Hello Samphire! This seasonal vegetable seems to be inseparable from any seafood partner. Rather than crunchy, the squid was actually soft and tender. Sweetness from the peas rounded off this original appetiser.

You should know me by now, I'm a big fan of generosity. We oohed over this whole sea bream which was grilled to perfect charred-dom, its luscious flesh only needing a squirt of lemon to create a small emulsion with the fish juices.

Onglet steak, watercress and creamed horseradish: Now I have a story to tell you here. It was the classic, almost comical, restaurant moment upon finding a bit of J-cloth in my salad. After a quick debate (which of us doesn't consider the complain-and-get-the food-spat-on conundrum?), I decide to take my chances. The waiter apologises immediately and whips away the offensive blue strip, offering to replace my salad with assurances that it is in no way harmful. Being halfway down my salad, you have to let some things go. Or at least I felt there was reason to this time...!

I suppose I could have thrown a critic-zilla moment but I had another problem. The steak was, pretty darn good. I couldn't really stop eating it. Onglet is a cut, popularised by the French, which only needs to be seared and eaten medium to medium rare. Too cooked and it gets too tough. This was done just right, seasoned just right and the creamy horseradish was a deliciously piquant companion.

And as textbook restaurant etiquette would have it, the same waiter offered our desserts for free due to our "distress"! And you know what, it worked. The efficiency by which it was dealt with, and with a courteous air, was much appreciated and my word, was a bonus considering the desserts we got. Each was presented in a gorgeous, little fashion and just so well done.

Above, Strawberry and Raspberry Shortcake: I cannot say enough for the crumbly, slightly savoury biscuit that sandwiched the cream and fruits within. It was as though a little parmesan cheese had been incorporated into the pastry. Simple, and wonderful.

Melon Sorbet: this picture does no justice to the highly underrated fruit that spawns this awesome sorbet. Sweet and succulent, one can imagine freshly picked melons went into this smooth and bursting-with-song icy treat.

My-oh-my! The boy did good! Sometimes I think great food is all about hitting those comfort spots, in that strong, robust and wholesome flavours always win. The food at the Blueprint cafe is full-on "good, honest, British",a prime example of how there are tremendous ingredients in this country, we just need to know how to use them. A meal (with complementary desserts) was £40 a head, including all those courses, and 2 glasses of wine each. Please go. It's one of this city's,  not hidden, but not as advertised secrets. 

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Saturday, July 10, 2010


How great is it when you can actually say London is too hot? Friday night with the girls, cocktails in a pretty place was right up my alley at the end of this week. As I was walking through the lush Green Park where there were striped deck chairs aplenty with sun-worshippers, a cold glass of Prosecco was calling my name. I'm all over it!

Tempo is a newly opened contemporary Italian restaurant in the heart of Hedge Fund Alley aka chichi Mayfair to the rest of us. Despite the menu being very Italian, Japanese chef Yoshi Yamada is behind the articulate and original take on Italian cooking which is just right for this Mediterranean heatwave. Here were the highlights:

Seared Octopus and Pomegranate: One of the great inventions of Italian eating culture is how they have starters before starters. A cicchetti is too large to be an amuse bouche but too small to be an actual appetiser. The octopus was beautifully seasoned and seared just right, and I loved it against the vibrant parsley, green apple and pomegranate, though two slim strips of octopus looks a little mean, no? Cicchetti or not, Italian cooking has to feel like it's inviting and hearty.


Taglioni of Fresh Cornish Crab, dill and Lime: Now this is more like it. Taglioni has a wonderful ability to let any ingredient that comes into contact with it cling on for dear life and be a carrier of flavours. This dish showed a new take on typical seafood pasta, the zing from the lime and herby peaks from the dill really brought the crab into zesty new life. 

Venison Carpaccio, pickled beetroot and summer vegetables. A rather interesting style of carpaccio, usually the meat is very rare, paper thin and quite animally in taste. The venison was seared and then sliced thinly, which made it more steaky, but I really enjoyed the contrast of that with the sour beetroot. 

Tuna Loin, Roasted Peppers: I was quite middle of the road with this dish. It ticked all the boxes in a technically cooked tuna with roasted vegetables, i.e. pink in the middle, soft and sour from the peppers but didn't have the x-factor.

Halibut, clams and zucchini: And back on track with this fish - halibut was cooked well, lots of juicy tomato goodness which you could dip bread in, and the clams topped off the seafood savouryness of it all. A large portion to share for two, we appreciated the providence of this course.

I did warn you we were on a girly Friday. Chocolate Fondant with Vanilla Ice Cream. May I be so bold to say the Hungry Female does a chocolate fondant, and I would wouldn't feel intimidated by rivalling this one! There was a good hit of dark chocolate, but more cooked than oozy and just quite boring actually.

Lemon Tart: Awesome. So lemony, we were regaling stories of lemons and limoncello from the Amalfi coast. The top was burnt to give a creme brulee effect - genius! One of the best lemon tarts I've had in a while. 

Summer Berry Tart with Raspberry Sorbet: Light, fruity and an all-round crowd pleaser. I would have preferred a sharper tasting sorbet but that is personal preference.

Overall, I enjoyed the experience, however there were some dishes that completely outclassed others. It's not the standard approach to Italian food, so whilst I'm sceptical, I could be persuaded into a second visit. We scored on an opening week deal, shaving 50% off the total bill, so it will be interesting to see if standards change after the deal ends. With our deal it was £35 a head, including 2 bottles of wine and 10 dishes.

(Thank you to foodie friend J for letting me pinch those pictures!)

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Wapping Project

Euurrghhh! After a bout of a strange tummy bug, I'm back and with regained appetite. Sorry if it's too much info, but a certain drug beginning with "I" was my friend!

It was one of those legendary, searingly hot London summer days which as we know, is rare. We find ourselves in the beautiful and inspiring Wapping Project building which is an ex-hydraulic power station. These days it's a restaurant, gallery and general activity space for them arty-folk. This place is a photographer's dream: steel structures, textures, streaming light (as per a day like this) and the open space which allows one to observe a kaleidoscope of views and angles.

I've been here once ages and ages ago, for dinner which pre-dates Hungry Female and the photo-taking. This time I'm back for brunch. After all this time, I'm still extremely impressed...

Buttermilk pancakes with maple syrup, raspberries and mascarpone. Clouds of goodness at your service. Fluffy, squidgy, and dusted with icing sugar, these are worth waking up early and crossing town for.

Courgette omelette topped with chives, buffalo mozzarella and paper-crunchy rocket. What an absolute trophy of a breakfast. It was more like a frittata, all vegetables still had that fresh snap and the mozzarella was melted enough it became a cheesy spread.

The Wapping Project also puts on a brunch spread (isn't that a wonderful sight?) of pastries, cakes and tarts, looking like savoury tea time. On average it's £8-10 for a breakfast choice, with smoothies, teas and coffees also on offer. An excellent place on the Wapping riverside during all seasons, visit it in summer for a burst of light indoors.

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