Zetter bar, Clerkenwell, London

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FURTHER my contention that the real gastronomic creativity in London is happening in bars rather than kitchens here is a snapshot of the Zetter bar – across the courtyard form the hotel (it is a bit confusing as to which Zetter is which).

Here we have a set up that Rimbaud and Verlaine might have approved from the streets of 19th century Paris, the absinthe strained through a sugar cube, although in fact here, interestingly, the absinthe is in fact made in Cornwall, tinged with seaweed, named after a mermaid. Fine stuff, very licoricey. the sugar has quite a dramatic effect.

Not on the menu but you can ask for it is a supreme nightcap of whisky with sweet vermouth and sandalwood. 20190814_190931.jpg

The long railway carriage of a room has been plumped with antiques, a bit Phileas Fogg, or your great great uncle’s study20190814_191508.jpg

There are some other tricks at work such as a blue martini and so called stone washed gin – they have a separate laboratory where they concoct things like hopped tarragon cordial, so it is all very exciting and original, an adventure.

Plus some food in small doses to match like this oyster in buttermilk20190814_185516.jpg and this pomme souffle filled with cod’s roe and topped with vegetarian caviar.20190814_185512.jpg. Worth checking out.

https//www.thezettertownhouse.com/clerkenwell/bar

 

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Sardinia, in passing

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AGRITURISMOS do not tend to emerge like mushrooms overnight. The Saltara opened in its present guide in 1993 – more restaurant with bungalows than agriturismo really, but has four generations of farming behind it and an iconic photograph of grandpa still oversees procedures. Their standout focus is the suckling pig – six of which no less adorn the hearth as you arrive – 26 euros with potatoes or as part of a large-scale four course set menu 90 euros.

Natalia and Gian Mario have presided for all that time and it shows – a very hospitable place with excellent service, lovely old school dining room or the courtyard in summer.

SHOULD you want to buy a serious restaurant, then you might do worse than this one. IMG_1650

It is four or five kilometres from the nearest houses but a few yachts pass by the cove. It has an unsurpassable panorama –  the sea on one side, mountains on the other. Not surprisingly it specializes in seafood and some local dishes, no pasta for some reason:

They have just opened a sushi bar in the nearby seaside resort of La Calletta.

The street art struck me. The lady in the wall is in fact the owner of her own agriturismo which is a clever, personal touch;

The painted stones were used as table numbers at Zia Luchi on the front at Santa Lucia, a small, modest caffe but keeping up the fine traditions with these fregola dishes which deserve mention, the basic with vongole, the second more elaborate – in the fancy violet plate –  with mixed seafood. Both were 13 euros.

I wish I had taken a photograph too of La Coccinella in Ozieri which is just a bar towards the top of the hill round from the car park. There is no menu. He is proud of his pasta and he has fresh fish and a regard for tradition. You would not go there unless you were passing through Ozieri but if you do you will appreciate the note and they will appreciate you too.

Sa Concha Ruia, Orosei, Sardina, 15/20

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THE notion of agriturismo is becoming some kind of euro-pop all purpose marketing slogan that dots the Sardinian landscape, a necessary antidote to the ravages of seaside tourism perhaps, but bundles up ideas of dinner, of bed and breakfast, of charging a lot of money to foreigners, of swimming pools, more tursimo than agri really. A proper agriturismo, a real one, obviously, needs time to develop.

I am not fully clear whether Sa Conca Ruia is a six bedroom hotel with a view, an event space or a farm specializing in old grains but what is plain is that the co-owner Martina is an unusual talent in the kitchen. Unlike other places that follow the ristorante tipica mantra as if by rote, she is a cook who brings a radiant narrative to her menu.

If you follow the map on their web site you will manage to get up the unmade road and reach the blue gates of their farm perched above the resort town of Orosei and be met by dogs and cats, roosters calling, even a wild boar and be enfolded in a building whose story is still being told.

Martina puts everything in front of you and what you eat is down to you. The price is 30 euros including their own red wine (no white). It is not quite the 18 course extravaganza of legend, but it is cleverly constructed and prepared with unusual acumen.

She opens with an invitation by way of a platter of meats, that seem tipica – the smoked ham, the olives, the wedge of hard cheese, a smear of goat’s cheese…and the freshly baked bread…but these are then paired off with silky skinned peppers and courgette salad with olive oil, rocket and pecorino. Your first impression is of the meats from the farm but as things unfold the protein becomes less and less important and you are travelling down the byways of Sardinian cooking.

 

And then this is followed by a gnocchi style dough (though in fact made from ancient grains from the farm) wrapping fresh ricotta and a flash of mint.

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By way of a main course came an unadorned braise of best end of lamb with tomato which might have usefully cooked longer and slower. It was followed by a magical whipped, iced cream of hazelnuts. Many people mention her ice creams.

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And then there are the dolce

IMG_1606which also reappear for breakfast…It is a singular place with a singular chef

https://agriturismosaconcaruia.business.site/

Brawn, Columbia Road, London, 16/20

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IT has been an attritional 2019 for some of my favoured haunts. Gone are Absinthe (omg), gone is Hedone (omg), gone is Duck Duck Goose (omg). I walk the high street with trepidation. Brexit means no restaurants. I could not care less about the chains invested by venture capitalists trying to export some décor and clichés to Macclesfield but the independents I feel for. You don’t recover from a broken business so easily in this country, unless you are very rich. Mercifully Brawn was still there. And pretty full on a Thursday lunchtime.

This is where the fashion for small plates began, but over the years these have filled out to some goodly proportions. Yes, you can still share, but you might not want to. Since Ed Wilson bought the operation out from the natural wine merchants Terroir there has been a shift to Italy. What was previously a French restaurant in microcosm, all technique and subjugation of ingredients, now the Italian influence dominates to the extent that some things are just left well alone: Sicilian Nocellara olives, Cantabrian anchovies (in fact, Spanish) may declare on the menu that they are sauced with lemon, mint and chilli but not very much lemon, mint, and chilli, not so much as to interfere with the purity of the fish.

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the last of six

There is burrata here, piattone there, agretti over there. Only the aged sirloin and some grilled duck hearts (with summer cabbage and pickled cherries) seem to remind of what used to be. Cod surfaces rather oddly too with mussels, peas, fennel and basil.

Two pasta dishes were first class – the ever popular papardelle with duck ragu, slim silky lengths of egg pasta, rough street slow cooked and shredded duck,

IMG_1409and a subtle ricotta ravioli with pine nuts and Pecorino and courgette sliced so thinly that it folds back on itself in imitation of the pasta. Very cute. IMG_1410

Radishes, carrots and smoked cod’s roe in the context is a generous starter, especially considering the bread and butter and (free) water. IMG_1405Another fine piece of fish – fine enough to be served raw – was the albacore tuna, served on tomato squares with capers, and agretti (monk’s beard).

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Service has also stopped being service and become someone bringing something carefully out of the kitchen, as if front and back of house have morphed into one, which is a bit of relief. You are not asked if everything was all right, because it is, of course.

Note the web site says it is not open on Sundays (or Monday lunch) when the flower market is on, although I have sometimes seen it operate then.

http://www.brawn.co/

Master Wei, Bloomsbury, London 15/20

IMG_0809IT is not a master, but a mistress, Wei Guirong, who first opened the very small Xi’an Impression by Arsenal football ground and has decamped here more centrally by Great Ormond Street children’s hospital. It is a smart-ish box in what feels like an old pub overseen by a bar and a weather eye on the nearby intake of Chinese students to the university. Xian is the capital of Shaanxi provence to the north east, the start of the silk road but whose cooking has taken rather longer to come to London. This is hand pulled noodle territory par excellence, addictive for sure, silken and magical and even more vibrant than the chilli sauce on the table.

Other dishes are if you like signposts to the street food – bun style burgers flavoured with cumin for example –  but the noodles are an event and manifest themselves around the menu in little dumplings, as thin spaghetti-style in soup with egg, a birthday or marriage tradition, the length of the noodle – and they are very long – meant to signify long life and marriage. This is the signature:IMG_0805 (1)

Smacked cucumber you may well know, but  sliver potato salad goes off the highway some as does a startling refreshing unusual house salad around radish, wood ear, tomato, pickled lettuce, pepper, celery and… strawberryIMG_0804

Service was all charm and explanation. Expect queues. If you are careful you could eat for £10 a head, but you probably won’t want to be…too much to explore.

http://www.masterwei.co.uk

Finca Altozano, Valle de Guadalupe, Mexico 16/20

A LOT of investment has gone into the vineyards south of the Tijuana border with California. There are almost twice as many these days, perhaps a 100 all told now, clustered on either side of the B road south of Tecate. Turn off down the potholed, rutted, dry mud side road and about a kilometre later you come acorss this open air restaurant which showcases most of the wines and also offers a showreel of the local cooking from a humble potato and tomato broth:to a whole suckling pig.

You are not quite in the open air, but under a roof construct overlooking the farm and the valley

A waiter takes you to a table, sets up some hot bread,  salsas and explains that it is left to right in terms of  heat, green to white. I manage level one. It is a big, boisterous, gregarious ranch-style place, and hardly qualifies as somewhere-you-have-never-heard-of if you live in the Baja. Busloads come out from the city to see the wines, so do locals in search of a celebration and a few tourists from SoCal. Like these two:

The menu is long, from slow preparations through tacos up to grills of different meats from milk fed lamb to quails etc. There is a certain chauvinism at work here. We can also do this. The difference perhaps here is that the audience is highly discerning, enthusiastic, appreciative and proud. Locals I suspect can navigate this menu as easily as the back streets. They take their food seriously and can be fierce critics.  Although meat takes pride of place, it was the fish that stood out for us, a beautiful ceviche of tunawith avocado and red onion on a taco; and this rare fish which was priced in fact more than the suckling pig a kind of bass – the Pacific waters here have an abundance of different fish – .served with warm tortillas and garnished with cucmber, lime and dill, you might almost say Scandi save the temperature is 32 degrees.

Brussel sprouts were griddled in the pan and covered with a grating of white cheese.

And probably just to show it can be done on the Pacific coast a couple of nods to the Mediterrenean –  a Serrano style ham and peppers cooked in the wood oven

Strangely, for me, it was perhaps the most obvious and the most colourful of the tacos with the beef shredded so finely in the middle and the whole thing deep fried into a cornmeal sandwich that worked least well but maybe that is the local preference. A bit greasy for me.

The house wines were Merlot and Chardonnay of a level that you might pay £15+ in a UK supermarket, which indeed you may be doing soon.

Around the corner was a second cafe housed in an old silver diner which I took to be a kind of coach driver’s canteen, albeit the rivalry was fierce so that they insisted we try the potato soup, pictured above – as if to say, if you really want the real, everyday thing…

 

The bill was £25 each. Some might say other places (Compestre, Corazon de Tierra, Laja perhaps among others)  do this dish better. Or that one. Maybe they do, but as a showreel of the best things available down the peninsular it is a hard act to follow. Other places nearby require the organisation to book ahead and a be a little more formal but may offer matching food and wine meals. For a wine and food adventure Guadalupe is probably the top ticket at the moment.

Another bit of travel advice is that the drive inland up to Teacate rather than Tijuana is wild, rugged and inspiring. We got into Mexico from SoCal easy-peasy, but we could not get out on the Sunday night because the traffic jam was so long and had to get a hotel in Tijuana and try again the next morning which was OK. Be warned. Better and cheaper to fly in and out through Mexico and cut out the USA, if you can.

http://www.fincaltozano.com

 

Omakase at Cafe Japan, Golders Green London 16/20

FISH is tricky. We take it for granted, in Europe that is, that there is a difference between a grilled lamb chop and a roast leg of lamb. Less so with fish. To get an understanding certain things are necessary, firstly high quality fish which is to say extremely fresh, and secondly a chef with knowledge of the subtle differences between say the belly and the back of the tuna, or even between different parts of white fish and to have the knowledge as to how to season them – this one with soy, this one with lemon, this one garnished with marinated hijiki, this one with ponzu. At this level raw fish becomes an art form…

The omakase – chef’s choice – from Seraya Fujushima at Cafe Japan is such an education. I have reviewed this modest, humble, sheer brick, slick café, rather than restaurant, before here (Wazen, sadly did not survive the hellish corner at Kings Cross, RIP) but the fact that it also provides set lunches for less or around £10 overlooks the fact that the six counter seats by the sushi bar are able to produce the highest quality sushi.

The photographs may look similar but in terms of taste and texture each of the 20 or so courses/mouthfuls is exemplary. All come on room temperature rice barring towards the end a whole scallop, a few have been blow torched to change the temperature until you reach this grand finale of the salmon roe wrapped in a sheet of nori and then finally the sea urchin.

I am full of admiration.