A Visit to Ottolenghi in London

Yotam Ottolenghi’s 2010 vegetable-forward cookbook “Plenty” was one of the most talked about releases in past few years, making vegetarian cuisine beautiful and exciting. Now, with the release of the follow-up cookbook, “Plenty More,” Ottolenghi is again on everyone’s lips. However, before the cookbooks, there were the restaurants. Ottolenghi has a restaurant and three delis scattered around London. The delis particularly intigued me because they offer his signature food for carry-out by the kilo. Having gorged on sweets and fried food in London thus far, it was time to order a bit healthier.Ottolenghi

I visited the Ottolenghi branch in the impossibly posh neighborhood of Belgravia (13 Motcomb Street London SW1X 8LB). The Ottolenghi store was bright and airy, and much like his cookbooks, everything was presented perfectly. The windows were full of deliciously fresh treats, and upon entry, the food was piled enticingly on large trays. I was frankly surprised at how beautiful everything looked. We are not talking about a Whole Food buffet, this stuff is art.

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One downside, the ordering system was a bit confusing. Some items, like muffins or desserts are sold individually, while the vegetables were by weight, however it is important to note that you do NOT do this yourself, you have to request a paper takeout box (large or small) from the person behind the counter who will then put the food in the box for you.

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The desserts looked particularly tasty, including fruit tarts and a sunken chocolate cake. However, I was trying to be especially healthy so I skipped dessert altogether and went with a few of the veggie salads. The first dish that caught my eye was the curry roasted cauliflower with tahini, hazelnuts and pomegranate arils. The second salad I chose consisted of roasted sweet potatoes with Ras-al-hanout yogurt and pumpkin seeds. Other options included a new potato salad, a quiche with leeks and bacon and char-grilled broccoli and chilli. Now, I couldn’t totally avoid the “treats,” so I also picked a savory muffin with pesto, goat cheese and tomatoes.
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Around the Belgravia shop there are no public parks, so I took my carryout box to the V&A museum to eat in the center courtyard. Everything was light, delicious and unique. The sweet potatoes with yogurt sauce was impossibly complex, and the pomegranate and cilantro really worked as a topping. However, the savory cheese-filled muffin was the most delicious of all! Ottolenghi is a great option for lunch, and gives me some further inspiration to try the cookbooks to bring the dishes to this side of the Atlantic.

Ottolenghi

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The Art of Fake Food, Sampuru, in Japan

Japan[Via Metafilter] We recently came across an absolutely fascinating video depicting a master fake food maker in Japan. That’s right, FAKE food, known in Japanese as sampuru, which is derived from the English word “sample.” In many restaurants in Japan, as well as Japanese restaurants abroad, enticing fake food is put on display to give potential customers an idea of what they will get. Creating the food itself is an art, and sometimes it’s even a little hard to tell real from fake.

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Birthday Dinner at Topolobampo

Topolobampo
445 N Clark Street
Chicago, IL

Mexico FlagAfter two years of trying, we finally made it to Rick Bayless’ star restaurant. It was Matt’s birthday, and Lindsay planned ahead making reservations months in advance as to ensure a spot. We, like everyone else in the city, were caught off guard by the meteoric rise in Rick’s popularity following his win at the inaugural Top Chef Masters; but at the same time, we, like everyone else in the city, took a renewed interest in his food.

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So many great things have been said about Topolobampo, there is no use in re-hashing them here. At the same time, the restaurant’s popularity has also brought in its share of criticism from less-than-satisified patrons. Part of this is due to location: Topolobampo shares a front door and a kitchen with Frontera Grill, Rick Bayless’ other, less formal restaurant. For this reason, many people (especially those on Yelp) claim that the food is a better value at Frontera, and that the inflated prices at Topolobampo can leave you with a big check and a less-than-full stomach of food that is the same at both restaurants. Other patrons claimed Topolobampo suffered from spotty service. We have not yet been to Frontera Grill, so we are uncomfortable making comparative claims. All we can say is that our meal was exquisite, served by a masterful waiter, and the bill was precisely what we expected (likely because, unlike so many others, we did not order any alcohol). The jamaica we got, however, was fantastic.

Dinner began with two appetizers. Matt ordered, per his biggest food crush, the trio of ceviches ($19.00), consisting of three of the restaurant’s most popular:

  • Ceviche Yucateco: steamed Mexican blue shrimp & calamari, lime, orange, habanero, avocado, jicama, cucumber & cilantro. Crispy tortilla chips (regular price $13.50);
  • Coctel de Atún Tropical : sashimi-grade Hawaiian bigeye tuna, tomatillo guacamole, mango salsa ($14.50); and
  • Ceviche Fronterizo: Lime-marinated Hawaiian albacore with tomatoes, olives, cilantro, green chile; on crispy tostaditas ($14.00).

How good were these? So well-balanced, so flavorful, and so distinct that Matt had eaten them before we had time to take a photo. The meal started off wonderfully. On to our second course:

Chile Pasilla Relleno en Nogada: Cool sweet-sour pasilla chile, fruity hedgehog mushroom filling (apples, plantain, prunes, black garlic, black olive), nogada cream (walnuts, almonds, fresh goat cheese) ($12.00). This was Lindsay’s appetizer. The mushroom filling was particularly interesting contrasted with the pasilla, which is always one of our favorites. Next, the main courses…

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Cochito Chiapaneco (above) : Gunthorp suckling pig, slow-cooked with red chile & sweet spices, homemade butifarra sausage, heirloom Mexican alubia blanco beans, grilled endive, fresh garnishes ($35.00). Matt went for a more subtle dish after the boldness of the ceviche. Here, the heartiness of classic Mexican cooking comes through here in a paradoxically light and subtle dish: the flavor and texture of the cochito, fall-apart-in-your-mouth just like it should be, shines through other starchy accompaniments with just the right amount of extra notes from the chile and spices. Seemingly pricey at $35, this was actually filling and worth it.

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Enfrijoladas (above): “enchiladas” bathed with a sauce of heirloom Mexican ayocote morado beans, luscious white sweet potato filling, Mexican cincho cheese, wild matsutake mushrooms, roasted red poblanos, chile-seared baby tomatoes ($25.00). Almost like a mole, Lindsay’s favorite, this vegetarian dish was a big hit on both sides: you can’t go wrong in our eyes with cheese and sweet potato filling in any context, much less one that uses them so well against the fruitiness of poblanos and roasted tomatoes.

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Chocolate, Oaxaca: Warm chocolate mesquite cakes, Mexican vanilla bean ice cream (infused with aromatic rosita de cacao), sweet masa pudding (nicuatole), toasted almond, cocoa nibs, masa crisps ($12.00). Dessert, Oaxacan chocolate cake, accented with nicuatole: a dish that we recently actually made in Oaxaca. Delectable.

At this point stuffed and very happy, we were surprised to see our server approach with some chocolate truffles and fruity gummy candy – an unexpected and appreciated touch.Topolo4

Dinner at Topolobampo changes seasonally, so you are sure to experience something new and great on your trip. When we have the chance to go back again, we will, as this was one of the few splurge dinners we have truly enjoyed.

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A Taste of Rhode Island: Coffee Milk and Coffee Syrup

coffee syrup

Coffee syrup spotted in the wild (Crate and Barrel)

When I recently visited a Chicagoland Crate and Barrel, I was very surprised to see something that I didn’t think existed outside of Rhode Island: Coffee syrup (see context photo above). Namely, this was Dave’s Coffee Syrup, a local brand we encountered in Providence. Coffee syrup is basically coffee concentrate mixed with sweetener. Much like chocolate syrup, coffee syrup can be added to pretty much anything, but it is most popularly mixed with milk to create…wait for it… Coffee Milk! Yes, this drink is exactly what you think it would be. Coffee Milk, aside from being tasty, is in fact the state drink of Rhode Island, as of 1993. One of the most popular coffee syrup brands is Autocrat, keeping Rhode Islanders in coffee milk for decades, though others like Dave’s are starting to carve out a niche for the artisanal coffee syrup market. Visit quahog.org if you are looking for a definitive history of coffee syrup and milk, including its Italian-American origins.

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Irish Barmbrack for Halloween

On Halloween in Ireland, there is merriment and good food, principally among them, Barmbrack (sometimes also called barnbrack). This sweet bread/cake hybrid  is dotted with raisins (sometimes soaked in liquor or tea) and flavored with autumnal spices like cloves and nutmeg. However, the Barmbrack also presents a twist. Much like a French King Cake, there are also little trinkets baked into the bread that have special meanings: a ring for an impending marriage, a pea for no marriage, a stick for fighting, a coin for luck, and a rag for a poor year. Whatever charm you get in your slice supposedly tells you what kind of luck to expect for the new year, though many people only put positive charms in the bread nowadays (who would want to find a rag in a piece of bread anyway?!). You can find a classic recipe from One Perfect Bite and Edible Ireland has a version with tea.

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Guatemalan and Salvadoran at Brianna’s Restaurant

flag-guatemalasalvadorI am crazy about pupusas – it’s no secret! What could be better than a pocket of carbs filled with cheese and other fillings? Nothing, I tell you. When we heard that the pupusas were on point at Brianna’s Restaurant (4911 N Western Ave, Chicago, IL 60625) we knew we had to visit! Brianna’s advertises itself as having Salvadoran and a Guatemalan cuisine, with a small selection of Mexican dishes.

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I got two pupusas, one with the emblematic Salvadorean loroco flower and one with Guatemalan chipilin ($2.25 each). I could hear the “pat-pat” of pupusas being made fresh and griddled after I placed my order, which is always a sign that you are going to get something good! As predicted, the pupusas came out hot and fresh with melty cheese fillings and a vinegary slaw. The loroco flowers were tasty and subtle and the chipilin leaves, which I had never tried, before tasted like a herby spinach. If Now 2 ‘small” pupusas was really enough to make me feel super full, but if you are well and truly ready to stuff yourself consider a “pupusa loca” a large pupusa with five ingredients. Fortunately, the vinegary slaw helps all those carbs go down.

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M went the more substantial route with a main dish. He was torn between several dishes. He ended up going with the hilachas, shredded beef with potatoes simmered in Guatemalan creole sauce, served with a side of rice ($10.95). The runner up was another Guatemalan dish – Pulique – beef rib stew with potatoes and squash ($10.95). The hilacha, the Guatemalan take on ropa vieja, was tasty with a pungent tomato sauce, more akin to Sunday gravy than a salsa.

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As a side, M also sampled his first atole, a warm, sweet corn drink. I went with the cooler passion fruit juice. If we were less full we would have sampled the Guatemalan bread pudding, which sounded delicious. The restaurant itself was very simple, but the service was friendly and pleasant. But most importantly, everything we had heard about the pupusas was true. Brianna’s makes a mean pupusa, and the price is right (less than $2.50) for each pupusa, making one of the tastiest and cheapest meals around.

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Sedap, Malaysian Nyonya Cuisine in London

malaysiaWe ended up at Sedap (102 Old St, London EC1V 9AY) thanks to a concert that never occurred. We were in the impossibly trendy Shoreditch waiting for a concert that was supposed to begin at 7, but by 8:30, the show had no signs of starting, and was being filled with more young teenagers than a One Direction concert. We decided to just cut our losses and grab a bite to eat. We had heard good things about Sedap’s unique take on Malaysian cuisine, so we decided to give it a try. Located within walking distance of Shoreditch, in a much more low-key (and less trendy) area, Sedap serves authentic Malaysian Nyonya food in a simple, serene setting. To contribute to the calm, there was even a little fountain in the corner where we were sitting (It was dark so unfortunately the picture did not come out at all).

Sedap

Sedap’s Interior

Nyonya cuisine (sometimes called Peranakan) is the result of the intermingling of indigenous Malay, Indonesian and Chinese techniques and ingredients, and is rare to find outside of Malaysia and Singapore. When we visited Singapore in 2010, we tried Nyonya cuisine for the first time, and we instantly loved the complex and diverse flavors. Sedap’s menu was pretty concise and we saw some dishes we had not seen since our trip to Singapore, which was welcome, including the emblematic Hainanese chicken rice, in a chili and soy sauce (£8.80). Also on offere were several Laksas, including Singapore Laksa, thin vermicelli noodles with fish cakes andshrimp in a curry sauce (£8.95). “Laksa” is a common type of dish in Nyonya cookery and refers to noodles in a soupy coconut milk curry (of which there are many, many variants).
???????????????????????????????We ordered one of our favorites from Singapore, Prawn/Shrimp Lemak (£8.70), and a new-to-us dish: Beef Rendang (£7.95). Both dishes came out pretty quickly and were perfect portions to share. The Rendang was advertised as being in a spicy, “almost dry” curry, meaning it was more of a thick paste that coated the meat. Not a photogenic dish, but spicy, flavorful and tender. The prawn lemak was a coconut milk curry, with plenty of lightly spicy soupy-ness and a strong lemongrass flavor. Both dishes were flavorful and complex, and had clearly been cooked to order. Overall, we found the food at Sedap to be unique and reasonably priced (for London) for the quality. We wish we had more time in London to explore more of Sedap’s Nyonya dishes and flavors. But even if we won’t be back for a while, we encourage people to get off the tourist track and try something new beyond the typical curry.

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