Painting Oxford St with the colours & flavours of Mexico at Corazon…

Tacos, ah tacos. I have an eternal hunger for them that I spend extravagant amounts of time trying to fulfil; my all-time favourites come from a glorious little bolthole on Sunset Strip called Pinches, closely followed by ex-Noma pastry chef Rosio Sanchez’s new venture ‘Hija de Sanchez’ in the perhaps less-obvious-for-Mexican-food setting of Copenhagen.

Here in London, Taqueria in Westbourne Grove has long held my heart but I’m constantly on the lookout for new spots that’ll give me my fix of soft homemade tacos filled with messy hunks of meat, spicy vegetables & squidgy cheese so new spot Corazon was always going to be high on my ever-inflating-like-Violet-Beauregard, culinary hit list. img_8973

Boasting a great central location just off Oxford St means that I now have an actual reason to gird my loins and do battle down London’s busiest road, something which I’d normally walk twelve miles out of the way to avoid. The vibe inside is bright, clean & fresh, dressed in shades of white, green & grey with a decent sized bar to perch at if you’re dining on the run. The space is big enough to make you feel that there’s likely to be a buzz when busy but not so vast that the back wall of the place seems Mo Farah distance away. Service was super friendly and genuine throughout and plates were delivered with a smile and a timely check back that everything was ok.

The menu is small but there’s enough on it that’s both familiar and interesting to convince you this is a place that knows its stuff; I’m not a fan of TGI length menus that take an hour just to scan only to find that there’s so much stuff on it, I’m left seriously doutbing that the kitchen actually know what they’re doing.

If you order only one thing – not something I’ve ever been able to do when eating out – make sure it’s the Sikil Pak, a Mayan spiced pumpkin seed dip served with jicama & cucumber. It might resemble the ‘before’ in an 90’s makeover movie but it’s absolutely delicious. Silky & rich with a slight oiliness from the seeds and a refined earthiness, it doesn’t taste like any dip I’ve had before but it tastes a heck of a lot like a dip I’ll be having again and again now.

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You’ll find this place is free from enchiladas and fajitas but heralds tostadas and tacos that are served two per portion with prices starting at £6 and topping out at £11. Carnitas tacos were dripping-down-to-your-elbow fantastic and Carne Asada’s blue corn tortillas added a nice flavour to well-cooked meat that had been marinaded in orange, soy and chipotle.

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The beer battered Baja fish will draw me back for a return visit (well, that and the marshmallow frosted Tres Leches cake…I’m only human after all) whilst a trip here over the festive period offered the chance to indulge in a parsnip purée & Brussels sprouts taco you’re unlikely to find elsewhere. Although there’s a nice selection of other dishes including Pozole Rojo – a pork shoulder stew – and Esquites – a herbed corn dish – the coffee & ancho chile braised short rib was a little underwhelming in flavour. I was hoping for a real gut kick of intensity however it ended up being more mellow than memorable.

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Wash it all down in the evening with a beer, a margarita or a cocktail – Trump’s Wall is alarmingly current – or reclaim your lunch break, come at 12pm and order horchata; Corazon’s version is a gorgeous take on the traditional Mexican drink which is made with rice & almond milk and agave and comes heavy-on-the-cinnamon & served deliciously cold.

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I’m not sure this is the place I’d head to for a long dinner over a pitcher of cocktails in the evening – the thought of having to fight my way out and up Oxford St again afterwards puts me off a bit TBH – but I’d absolutely come back for a well timed, well priced, well flavoured lunch and if you want a respite from the crowds outside and a little taste of sunnier, spicier climes, I’d urge you to do the same.

A gift to the carnivore within; that would be Smokehouse, Islington…

In the time honoured tradition of spilling secrets to strangers, I’m starting today by confessing something…

…I eat very well in London. I get excited by new openings but much like my love for NKOTB (if you have to ask, you won’t understand), I also remain loyal to the things that delight me; when it comes to proclaiming my love for anywhere that fits the bill of holy trinity London dining – delicious, stylish, affordable – I’m just a few serpents away from being the kind of preacher normally found on cable channel 985.

Lately though, I don’t know what it is but I feel like something’s been missing. It’s been too long since one of those can’t-stop-thinking-about-it-for-days-afterward meals and to be honest, in a city where eating has become a national past-time, that can’t be good.

Thankfully over this past weekend I was pacified by somewhere only moments from my own sofa so listen up because I’m about to sing like the proverbial Tweety Pie about a place I’m both selfishly reluctant and proudly dying to share with you all.

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J is a man for whom I would, in the words of Jimmy Stewart, lasso the moon if I could. Alas, I fear I’m more Blazing Saddles than John Wayne when it comes to rope twirling so while the moon will have to stay put for now, I have found a more than decent substitution for showing my devotion to him, for celebrating his birthday and for wriggling my way further into his heart through his stomach…

Opened in August 2013, Smokehouse Islington is one of five restaurants owned by a group of food-professional friends including Scott Hunter & Maria Larsen, the duo behind Islington’s Pig & Butcher, and chef Neil Rankin, formerly of Barbecoa, Pitt Cue & John Salt…in other words, a man who knows a thing or two about the magic that happens when good meat & burning charcoal hunker down for a saucy night in together.

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Having realised in the past two years of our N1 life that the only way we could live any closer would be to enforce squatters’ rights to the fairy-light lit garden, I was determined this was not a place we would miss out on. Fact is, now I can’t think of anywhere else I want to go back to more and it’s not just because of the food which FYI, is bloody marvellous and totally upholds the first statement on their website – ‘we only use the best produce & ingredients we can’ – but because it’s one of those rare places that cares as much about the experience of eating as what is on your plate.

Understated and heartily minimal elegance catch your eye from the outside and continue through the interior decor; warm wood and blackboards feel welcoming and clean, while spotless white walls are dotted with antlers, the smallest of which are the perfect size for Halloween pug costumery. Our Saturday night visit found the place packed with people looking understandably smug with their choice of weekend restauranting but unlike other establishments, the number of tables inside was acceptable…anyone else really quite over going for dinner with one person but knowing at least 6 others by the end of the night because they’re practically sat on your lap feeding you bits of the bread basket?

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The chance to try goat for the first time had me excited; the description of Somerset Goat Tacos with Chipotle Aioli & Green Sauce nearly had me storming the open kitchen for a taste. Soft small tortillas were generously stuffed with light & tangy shredded meat, not as richly heavy as lamb nor as dourly chewy as mutton; I could have eaten a dozen without apology or shame…run and hide now goats of the world, run and hide.

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An accompanying starter of Chopped Brisket Roll with Gochujang was crunchy on the outside, dark and lusciously tender on the inside and big enough to cast a hefty shadow over the pool of velvety gochujang that lay puddled before it.

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Some people might look upon its sizable girth with apprehension and think it perhaps too big…those are not people I care to associate with and honestly, neither should you.

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A plate of Short-rib Bourguignon was magnificent in both stature and flavour; deep, rich and dark, perfectly charred round the edges, melting in the mouth and painted with a glossy sauce and a generous handful of crispy shoestring onions.  The first bite caused eyes to widen and although a lusciously creamy mash mountain nestled next to it, the arrival of the mains also heralded the appearance of Caramel Roast Potatoes, humble spuds so crunchy and fluffy and lightly sticky that I would happily answer to the name of ‘crazy lady in the corner who comes in once a week for a bowl of these alone’.

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A plate of smoked duck with crispy, gloriously stodgy potato hash cake, kimchi that set the belly on fire and perfectly fried egg more than held its own against the regal short-rib; the smokey flavour was so subtle but absolute it completely filled your mouth, appearing as if by some kitchen witchcraft without ever being harsh or uncontrolled.

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Although the concept of Banana Bread French toast with Caramelised Bananas, Pecans & Dulce de Leche made me want to loosen the belt another six notches and get busy with a portion, I always prefer to try this things I could never re-create at home which is why I was drawn to Smoked Strawberries with Cream Cheese Mousse & Praline for dessert. Prettily presented berries were juice-running-down-your-chin sweet and ripely piled on top of silky whipped cream cheese, dotted with nutty praline shards and dolls-house-tiny ribbons of basil, this was a simple, beautifully light way to end the meat-feast that our dinner had been and it charmed me into total submission.

Staff were charming & friendly with a real love for their job shining through; big shout out to our waiter, known only as ‘Irish’, who was affable, sincere and possessor of excellent pale ale knowledge; his recommendation of the British Redwell Steam Lager that we rounded off our evening with was dangerously drinkable with a mellow, buttery, almost caramel flavour.

In the vast expanse of dining options that is London in 2015, it’s all too easy to feel suckered out of your money & your time by gimmicks, Liliputian portions & sad plates that are embarassed by their own appearance. Smokehouse Islington delivered quality of food that was worth every penny and the love of smoking, cooking & butchering was visible in each dish, each plate, each mouthful and that is something that will never go out of style.