The very best things I ate…February 2018

February, you were a minxy little trickster. In you rocked on day 1 with your crisp blue skies and your diluted dappled sunshine and then off you bombed it four weeks later in a huffing, whirling, squalling blizzard of lash-tickling snowflakes and bone-chilling temperatures.

Thanks. No really. You were an absolute sweetheart.

However, despite leaving us quilted in the sort of thick soft snow that never fails to send Transport for London into the sort of screechy, shouty, panicky meltdown usually associated with the contestants on America’s Next Top Model, you did bless us with some really, really, ridiculously good-looking food like this…

1. Vegan Cheeseburgers

We have an insanely talented bunch of development chefs at work which means that when lunch rolls round and it’s stuff they’ve put together, you’d be crazy to miss it.

So I don’t.

Ever.

These cheeseburgers were served as part of a vegan inspired lunch that was uniformly splendid but it was these bad boys with their melty, plastic cheese, their soft seeded rolls and their charred-and-smothered-in-special-sauce patties that really dialed it up ‘Hello? Oh hi, this is ludicrously tasty here!’

Looking like the burgers of your childhood and all the better for it – no glazed brioche buns or artisan leafy greens squatting here thank-you very much – I’d defy anyone not to seriously love them.

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2. Rhubarb & Cardamom Pastry at Pophams, Islington

Islington has long been sought out as one of London’s most delicious boroughs and now with the arrival of Pophams, a petite artisan bakery that specialises in beautiful sourdoughs and uniquely gorgeous pastries, it’s even harder to narrow down where you want to eat at any given time, day or night.

With a beautifully light & modern interior, crockery you’ll find yourself ogling & ‘gramming voraciously and a chilled vibe just the right side of being cool, Pophams is the sort of place you’d be proud to call your local…and I am.

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Their peanut butter-jam pastries are a feat of viennoiserie engineering excellence, their sourdough ham & cheese toasties are perfect snow-day provisions and their rosemary-sea salt plaits are as light & delicate as butterfly wings but it’s their stepping-into-Oz Technicolor rhubarb & cardamom custard pastries that are really worth nipping over for. Crispily, flakily edged and softly, sweetly middled, if you’ve found yourself obsessing over new ways to eat spring’s prettiest fruit, here’s one of the nicest you’ll find.

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Scream if you wanna go gluten free…

Finding good gluten-free baked treats is often as easy as finding something good to say about Donald Trump’s hair. It takes dedication, perseverance and the ability to accept it’s likely to never happen…or so I thought until I stumbled into Cookies & Scream on Holloway Road.

An offshoot of the original cookie bar which popped up in Camden Market seven years ago, this little sit-down shop has all the original favourites plus a whole host of new faces on London’s gluten-free baking landscape. Small glass cases at the front of a shop that’s part goth-part Mary Berry were full of everything from cookies the size of dinner plates to brownies that seemed to be melting in a puddle of their own chocolaty goodness to My-Little-Pony coloured fruit pies…oh and did I mention that everything they make here is gluten, wheat, egg & dairy free?

Servings are generous (translation – wear your most elasticated of waistbands) and well worth their price-tags which hover around the £3-4 mark. Staff are friendly – one guy sporting what are unarguably the best curls in the capital FYI! – and patiently welcoming to a small queue which included everyone from school kids to OAP’s on the afternoon I visited. Read More

Adoring the start of a new Roman empire at Palatino…

Palatino is the kind of place you want to make your local. You wanna duck in there on a cold wintry night, be greeted warmly, asked how you are and shown to your regular seat at the bar from where you can enjoy an unobtrusive view of the restaurant, a plate of gnocchi alla Romana & a glass of sparkling Moscatel that find their way to you without even having to ask…or at least, this is what I want. This is my Italian dinner daydream, heavily laden with the fragrance of sage and the flavours of Rome.

Going there for dinner on the recent soft launch was one of the loveliest dining experiences I’ve had in a while. It’s not just that the food is fabulous – which it is – or that the décor is gorgeous – which it is – or that the staff are effervescent about the menu – which they are. It’s that it’s all of those things and it’s all of those things done with a lovely, elegant, quiet, assured, timeless style that make it frankly brilliant.

It’s a barn of a building that mixes long, wooden, communal tables with mustard yellow booths and tall tables for two and it’s a blessed relief to see beautifully stylish fixtures that don’t include bare filament lightbulbs & crumbly brick walls…#canwemoveonfromthesenowplease?

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The menu here is a tricky beast to tame because you’re going to want to order everything on it. Seriously. Consider that due warning. Two of us devoured two starters, two pastas, two meat courses and a shared dessert (a 60-40 split to me naturally) before finishing off our dessert wine and rolling ourselves companionably out of the door. The fried sage with apple & honey vinegar is an absolute treat. Fact. Crispy, light and really rather ridiculously moreish, this was one of my favourite dishes of the night. Some might scoff at the idea of paying for the privilege of eating battered foliage…let them. I couldn’t give a flying fig because that just means there’s more for me and you and all the people who know that there’s more to the starter section of a menu – and more to frying – than chicken wings & onion rings.

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A n accompanying salt cod crudo with blood orange and olive oil arrived fresh & light enough to have just strolled out of the ocean but it was those brittle leaves that kept us dipping back for more.

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Bombolotti ragu Marcella introduced me to the sweetest baby pasta I’ve ever cooed over before wolfing down, one greedy, meaty spoonful at a time while that aforementioned dream dish of gnocchi alla Romana came slick with brown butter and has haunted my every waking moment since this visit. Honestly, if I’ve spoken to you over the past fortnight and not implored you to go there and try it, I’ll be amazed because I feel like I’ve evangelized about it to anyone who’s crossed my path. Go there. Try it. Charred on the outside and oozing like fudgy, treacly velvet on the inside, it has forever changed what gnocchi means to me. Tiny, fork-tined potato pebbles be gone.

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Chicken, pancetta & pistachio meatballs on a bed of polenta were light & savoury – I loved the added texture & flavour from the nuts – and Onglet steak was tender, juicy, cheekily pink and painted with sunset hued salsa rossa piccante.

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This is the food of Italy that Italians would want to eat; it is not the food of Italy for those who consider a deep dish, stuffed crust, pineapple speckled pizza to be an accurate representative of the country’s cuisine. I’m not saying you can’t enjoy both at the right time – well actually that’s exactly what I’m saying about the pineapple, diplomacy be damned – but you need to know what you’re gonna get and what you’re flipping well not gonna get here.

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I foresee myself swinging past one day for a slice of quince, almond & rosemary tart for breakfast because I’m a grown up and that’s what we do but dessert on this occasion was chocolate & sour cherry tartuffi ice-cream with whipped cream. Dark, sweet, creamy, pretty as a picture and every bit as lick-the-plate-clean delicious as you’d expect something made up of those ingredients to be, it was like the humble choc ice had finally – splendidly – come of age.

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Although you may deduce from the casual love letter that has poured forth here that I quite liked the menu, it’s worth noting that the service is every bit as excellent as the food. Arriving half an hour early because I’d had a senior moment and actually forgotten what time I’d booked – seriously, I think I need to up my cod liver oil intake and recharge the old grey matter as a matter of urgency – wasn’t an issue and we were seated immediately & graciously whilst a lost glass of dessert wine was apologised for and replaced with two tasters that were even nicer. You’re made to feel as though the team here are so glad you’ve come to have dinner with them, something that a lot of other London restaurants could do with reminding of now and again.

When I mentioned this place to a colleague on the hunt for somewhere to take his wife, he said that he never really considered Italian food for an evening out and there are enough places in the capital that have disgraced the name of all that is deliciously Italian for me to understand why this might be but I’ll say to you what I said to him; this place is different. It’s really good, it’s worth getting over those galling memories of bad Italian food done poorly for and y’know what? I’ll shout you dinner at the Hut if you disagree…dinner for one mind you. I’ll be at the Palatino bar eating all that gnocchi and enjoying my local.