24 Hours in Braga | The Heart of Historical Northern Portugal

Have you heard of Braga in Northern Portugal? I confess I hadn’t until I was invited to visit the area recently.

I quickly learned that Braga is the oldest city in Portugal and has a very long and fascinating history which is still very much in evidence today.

Braga (together with nearby Guimarães and Tenões) is located in the historical Minho Province, which borders the current-day Galicia region of Spain. Indeed the area can trace its history back through the Middle Ages (when both areas were collectively known as Gallaecia), the era of the Roman Empire and even further back to the Celtic Stone, Bronze and Iron Ages!

It’s also celebrated as the birthplace of Portugal. After Henry of the House of Burgundy merged the counties of Portugal and Coimbra, both of which were part of the Kingdom of León (Spain), control passed to his son Afonso Henriques upon his death. Following the Battle of São Mamede Afonso proclaimed himself first the Prince and then the King, establishing the Kingdom of Portugal in 1139. Portugal was formally recognised as a country by the Kingdom of León in 1143 and by papal bull in 1179.

But even if you are not much interested in history, Braga is perfect for a European city break – it offers a historical old town full of beautiful buildings, bustling cafes and an assortment of churches, gardens, museums and palaces. The local cuisine is utterly delicious. And it’s less than an hour’s drive from Porto – Portugal’s second largest city (more of which in an upcoming post).

Braga and Guimaraes Portugal on Kavey Eats (c) Kavita Favelle-110806 Braga and Guimaraes Portugal on Kavey Eats (c) Kavita Favelle-095836
A city mascot; The Arco da Porta Nova (New Gate)

Sometimes called ‘the Rome of Portugal’, a reflection of the importance of its role in the history of Portugal, Braga feels altogether more approachable than its Italian counterpart. Don’t get me wrong, I really loved visiting Rome – for its history, its culture, its food and its place in popular culture via film – but I find it a little daunting too. Where Rome is a sharp-suited business woman wearing towering heels and don’t-fuck-with-me sunglasses, Braga is a silver-haired grandpa in a pair of worn corduroys and a patterned-knit jumper. Braga is warm, friendly, colourful and charming.

Braga Tiled Buildings Collage
Braga buildings decorated in azulejos

I’m sure a big part of that mental image is down to the beautiful and colourful tiles that adorn many of the buildings in Braga.

Braga Tiles Collage
Azulejos

Known as azulejos – these tiles are used extensively to decorate walls and floors and occasionally even ceilings. Most have a geometric design, but some are multi-tile painted panels portraying historical or cultural scenes. A few are even 3D, creating a gorgeous tactile surface that catches the light and shadows of the moving sun.

Ceramic tiles were introduced to the Iberian Peninsula by the Moors, and indeed the name comes from the Arabic word for tiles, itself a reference to the polished stone mosaics of the Roman Era. In the thirteenth century, the Iberian tile industry was centred in Seville but King Manuel I introduced the techniques to Portugal after a visit to Seville in 1503. The Portuguese adopted the Moorish tradition of covering walls completely with azulejos

Episcopal Palace Braga Collage
The Episcopal Palace of Braga

The best way to enjoy the old town of Braga is on foot. After passing through the Arco da Porta Nova – a somewhat ironic name given that it was built in the late eighteenth century; the city walls date back fourteenth century, so the gate is certainly new compared to that – we walked along narrow commercial streets full of shops, churches and beautiful buildings.

The Episcopal Palace of Braga caught our attention more than once, as we encountered different wings of its sprawling footprint. After passing the Misericórdia Church to our left, we came to the beautiful Paço square on our left, a courtyard bounded at three sides by the South Wing of the Episcopal Palace and open to the street on the fourth. The fountain here is still in use by locals; a man approaches casually to wash his hands.

Later we saw the Gothic style Medieval wing fronted by the Santa Bárbara gardens, and with a fountain of George’s dragon opposite. The gardens are kept in flower for as much of the year as possible, courtesy of a local nursery from which flowers are swapped in and out of the beds as needed.

There is also an eighteenth century Baroque wing with an ornate stone and white render facade, which we didn’t visit.

Today, the palace buildings house the University of Minho, the town’s public library and the district archive.

Braga Doors and Windows Collage
Doors and windows of Braga

I have always been drawn to door and window details and Braga afforded me plenty of wonderful examples to capture.

I love the variety of architectural styles and find much beauty in the dilapidation of wear and tear and graffiti.

Praca da Republica Square Braga Collage
Praça da Republica Square

Another of Braga’s nicknames is ‘city of fountains’ and the reason becomes most evident when we reach the Praça da Republica Square. The beautiful Vianna fountain forms a focal point to an asymmetrically shaped space surrounded by buildings of different eras, styles and colours. There are churches, cafes, even the remnants of Braga Castle. Stretching away to one side is the Avenida Central Garden, with more fountains and plenty of space to sit and relax.

Cafe Brasileira Braga Collage
The Café A Brasileira

As we moved on from the Praça da Republica Square our destination for a well-earned coffee and cake stop was the iconic Café A Brasileira, housed in a beautiful blue-tile fronted building with ornate metalwork and signage. Inside is just as gorgeous – sets of tiny tables and chairs receive plenty of light from the floor to ceiling windows, and a counter full of temptation shows off lots of delicious pastries.

Opened in 1907, it was founded by Porto-born merchant businessman who imported coffee from Brasil to Portugal, and created a chain of shops in which to sell it. In order to attract customers to his wholesale business, he offered a free cup of coffee with every two 500 gram bags of coffee beans purchased and the rest, as they say, was history.

I love my coffee weak and milky, so ordered a cafe meia de leite clara – ‘clear’ coffee with milk.

Not really hungry but keen to try as many local specialities as possible, some of us shared a local pastry known as the Jesuita which originated in the village of Santo Tirso, half way between Braga and Porto. Shaped like a monk’s robe, layers of crisp puff pastry were iced with a sweet and crunchy meringue.

 San Marcos and Santa Cruz Churches in Braga Collage
Santa Cruz Church and São Marcos Hospital Church

Suitably restored, we continued on to the Santa Cruz (Holy Cross) Church. Peering up at the detailed stonework, we strove to spot the two roosters carved into the facade – legend has it that if a visitor spots them on their first visit, they will soon find a good match in marriage!

To the left of the Santa Cruz is the São Marcos Hospital Church. Built in the eighteenth century, its baroque features are imposingly grand, especially with the menace of rainclouds above.

On a future trip, I hope to see inside both of these beautiful buildings.

Palacio Do Raio Braga Collage
The Palácio Do Raio

From the moment we drove past it on our way from the airport to our hotel, I was eager to return to the stunning Palácio Do Raio, located just around the corner from São Marcos Hospital Church.

The late Baroque-early Rococo style two-storey building was built in the mid-eighteenth century as a family residence for João Duarte de Faria, a knight of the Order of Christ and a rich local merchant. He commissioned André Soares to design and supervise construction; Soares was already well regarded in Braga as a sculptor, engineer and architect. The building came to be known as a palace over a century later, after being acquired in 1867 by Miguel José Raio, the Viscount of São Lázaro.

The gorgeous blue tiles, blue-painted doors and metalwork are stunning against the warmth of the carved granite and it was hard to pull my eyes away from this beautiful, striking building.

Before moving on, we poked our heads inside only briefly, to see the blue and white painted tiles running up the walls of the central staircase.

Shopping by Braga Cathedral Collage
Braga Cathedral and nearby shops

Towards the end of our city walk we skirted round the beautiful Braga Cathedral. The Diocese of Braga dates back to the third century AD, making it one of the oldest in the Iberian Peninsula and an important centre for the Christianisation of the region. Braga lost its bishop seat after the arrival of the moors, regaining it only in 1071 once the city fell back into Christian hands. Construction of the cathedral began soon after the bishopric was regained. During Henry of Burgundy’s rule, the Pope promoted Braga into an archbishopric, giving it power over a larger region. The original cathedral, completed in the twelfth century, was Romanesque in style and influenced many other churches and monasteries built in that period. Modifications in later periods mean that today it is a mix of Romanesque, Gothic, Manueline and Baroque architecture.

A couple of us gave into the temptation of the brightly coloured printed cloths on sale in the tourist shops outside.

Braga Collage

There is plenty more to see in Braga – more churches and other historic buildings, more streets to walk, more fountains, cafes and shops to explore.

But with a packed itinerary, it was time for us to move onwards.

Bom Jesus do Monte Guimaraes Collage
Bom Jesus do Monte

Even in the drizzling rain, Bom Jesus do Monte Sanctuary located in neighbouring Tenões is an impressive site indeed.

Under the patronage of successive Archbishops of Braga the best architects, artists and builders were commissioned to create the religious sanctuary over the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Still an important site of pilgrimage, hardy visitors climb the extensive stairways up the mountainside, pausing for reflection and prayer at the small chapels between. The rest take the easy option, climbing up the winding road in the warm and comfort of cars and buses.

The most impressive element of the site is the theatrical Baroque Via Sacre (sacred way) staircase that zig zags up to the Bom Jesus sanctuary at the top of the hill. The contrast between granite and white plaster really shows off the geometrical symmetry of the design. Stone carvings along the staircase depict the life of Jesus and fountains represent each of the five senses – sight, smell, hearing, touch and taste.

Our first stop was at the bottom of the Sacred Way, where we stepped onto the cobbled mosaic and enjoyed a beautiful view out over the local countryside and upwards to the church above. I tried to imagine the sight of modern day pilgrims climbing the stairs on their hands and knees, a penance still observed by many during Holy Week and Pentecost. We clambered back into our van to shortcut the last step of the journey to the grounds and church at the top.

Beautiful formal planting provided a welcome burst of colour even under the gloomy grey skies of a rainy day. While the others explored some of the multi-level balconies at the top of the Via Sacre, I entered the church quietly just as worshippers burst into song. All too soon, it was time to move on again.

Another way to travel to and from the top of the hill is via the Funicular, installed in 1882. Designed and supervised by French Portuguese engineer Raul Mesnier du Ponsard under the direction of Swiss expert Nikolaus Riggenbach, it uses an ingenious hydraulic system whereby water tanks in each of a pair of trams are used as counterbalances, the tanks emptied and filled in turn. As one tram rises, the other descends, both arriving into the top and bottom stations simultaneously. It’s the oldest such funicular in the world and its success resulted in Mesnier going on to create a series of funiculars and cable lifts in the capital, Lisbon, some of which are also still in use today.

Pousada Santa Marinha da Costa Collage
Pousada de Santa Marinha

Our next stop was the most delicious of the trip.

Wowed first by the exterior and interior of the Pousada de Santa Marinha in Guimarães, a former monastery turned into a luxury hotel, I was even more impressed by our lunch.

Dating from the twelfth century, the monastery retains a wealth of beautiful and ornate original features – of course there are many examples of azulejos, including blue and white panels depicting local scenes and stories – in large reception rooms, along stairways and on the walls of an open terrace area with a fountain, chairs and tables and a stunning view. The hotel also has many amenities including a library, various lounges, a pool and spa services.

Pousada Santa Marinha da Costa Lunch Collage
Lunch in Pousada de Santa Marinha

In a space that was once used as the wine cellars of the monastery, we enjoyred a meal of beautifully presented traditional dishes.

Alheira, served as part of our amuse bouche, tells the tale of some of the region’s religious history. In the fifteenth century, the Jewish population were given the choice of converting to Christianity or being expelled from the country. Many converted in public, but practised their beliefs behind closed doors, including the avoidance of pork. Scared that their neighbours may note the absence of the ubiquitous pork sausages hung up to dry cure or smoke, the Jews created a version made from chicken and game, which they could hang up and eat, to give the impression of eating pork. Later, the non-pork sausage recipe became popular with the wider population.

While the others in my group enjoyed a traditional caldo verde, the famous cabbage and potato soup flavoured with chorizo or pork, I chose the ‘golden egg’ starter, a slow-cooked egg in a crisp potato nest with mushrooms and a smoked sausage and truffle ball.

My starter was good but it was the main dishes that made the meal so special.

The two key dishes were served into individual plates from large cooking dishes brought out to us on a trolley. We were about a fifty fifty split between the Arroz malandrinho (cheeky rice, as we called it) full of monkfish and prawns, and the Cachaço de porco preto (black pork neck) slow cooked with clams, prawns and potatoes. My pork was so tender and so full of flavour, and utterly fantastic with the richly flavoured sauce, seafood and potatoes.

For dessert, we were served a selection of regional sweets including Pudim Abade de Priscos (an extremely rich pudding of egg yolks, sugar and fat), Torta de Laranja (orange cake) and Toucinho Do Céu (which literally translates as bacon from heaven, because of the pork lard used liberally in the recipe). The version we had was made with chila (figleaf gourd).

Many of these dishes originated in Braga and Guimarães, or in wider region.

In a trip of much excellent food, this was the stand out meal for me. Next time I visit the area, I’m determined to stay overnight and experience the rest of the pousada.

We packed all of this into a single day, along with a short walk around Guimarães, to see the castle and old city walls as well as a quick walk in the old town centre. It certainly didn’t feel rushed, though there’s plenty much more to see in Braga, Guimarães and Tenões. The area is a perfect destination for a self-drive holiday, combined with nearby Porto, and I’m plotting a return trip to see more of the region.

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24 Hours in Braga Northern Portugal

Coming soon, a post on our time in Porto – one of the most beautiful city break destinations in Europe.

Kavey Eats visited Northern Portugal as a guest of the Portuguese Tourist Office and TAP Portugal. TAP flies direct from London Gatwick to Porto twice daily. With enormous thanks to all those who hosted and organised the trip.

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What Makes A Great Sunday Roast? | Sunday Dining at Hatchetts in Mayfair

A really good Sunday Roast is a very fine thing indeed. But how to define ‘really good’?

Perhaps surprisingly, the element that comes first for me is roast potatoes. Yep, spuds over meat (though that’s a very close second). Roasties that are beautifully fluffy inside but have a properly crunchy exterior (that doesn’t give up its crisp at the first sign of gravy or steam from the heat) are paramount!

The meat is still very important, and whether it’s beef, lamb, pork or chicken I look for plenty of flavour, tenderness and moistness. And there’s an extra thumbs up for restaurants that source British meat, of course.

Next, the gravy. It has to be generous on the plate (or a jug of extra on the side) and with bags of flavour that complements the meat and spuds.

Yorkshire puddings are a wondrous thing so anywhere that includes them with all roasts, not just with the beef, gets another extra thumbs up.

When it comes to the other vegetables, I’m a little more relaxed though not, of course, without opinions! I really dislike pickled or fermented cabbage – fine with big fat bratwurst but not with my Sunday roast, thanks… And peas, whilst usually a benign vegetable choice, have a habit of scattering all over the plate in a way I don’t think works with roast meat and gravy.

Give me savoy cabbage and carrots and I’m as happy as Larry. Add something special (such as a slice roasted squash) and it’s yet another extra thumbs up!

Hatchetts Sunday Roast on Kavey Eats (c) Kavita Favelle-122324 Hatchetts Sunday Roast on Kavey Eats (c) Kavita Favelle-122607

With a dearth of options in my local neighbourhood for a really great Sunday roast, I am more willing to travel further afield. A few weeks ago, Pete and I headed down to Hatchetts in Mayfair, which we visited for dinner shortly after they opened in July. Hatchetts have now introduced a Sunday roast to their offering and it’s a cracker.

Hatchetts Sunday Roast on Kavey Eats (c) Kavita Favelle-9586 Hatchetts Sunday Roast on Kavey Eats (c) Kavita Favelle-9591

Having had no breakfast, and with my belly rumbling, I accepted the offer of bread and ordered a starter, though we shared one between us to so as not to spoil our appetite for the roasts to come.

Smoked salmon (£9) dotted with dollops of caper and raisin puree was served with lightly toasted brown soda bread. The light smoke on the fish and sweet sharp puree mean we made very quick work of the dish.

Hatchetts Sunday Roast on Kavey Eats (c) Kavita Favelle-9598 Hatchetts Sunday Roast on Kavey Eats (c) Kavita Favelle-9596

Time for the roasts! I chose the Marinated leg of blackface lamb, spiced autumn squash, rosemary gravy and mint sauce (£18). I was not disappointed.

Two thick slices of beautifully flavoured and tender lamb with four perfect roast potatoes, a Yorkshire pudding, a pile of savoy cabbage, one medium carrot and two slices of (different) roasted squash. Oh and a generous lake of glossy and deeply flavoured gravy and some homemade mint sauce.

This really was a superb plate of food – one of the best roasts I’ve had for a long time. Very little I’d change – a touch less salt in the savoy cabbage and the carrot cooked more briefly to retain more bite and texture but those are minor niggles.

Hatchetts Sunday Roast on Kavey Eats (c) Kavita Favelle- Hatchetts Sunday Roast on Kavey Eats (c) Kavita Favelle-9593

Pete was just as happy with his Organic Sussex chicken breast, confit leg croquette, roast shallots, thyme gravy (£16.50). On his plate the slightly oversalted cabbage was balanced out by the sweetness of the roasted shallots. The chicken was full of flavour and beautifully cooked and the two leg meat croquettes provided an extra texture and taste. Yorkshire pudding comes with all roasts here, so he didn’t miss out on that either. And the spuds and gravy were, like mine, excellent.

Hatchetts Sunday Roast on Kavey Eats (c) Kavita Favelle-9604 Hatchetts Sunday Roast on Kavey Eats (c) Kavita Favelle-9606

Being greedy bastards, and mostly because we’d spotted it when ordering our mains and couldn’t get it out of our minds, we ordered a Sticky toffee pudding, bourbon caramel, crème fraiche ice cream (£6) to share. This was bloody fantastic too! The pudding itself was moist and rich – featuring coca-cola soaked prunes we were told – and the caramel sauce providing a perfect balanced bitterness. We couldn’t detect the bourbon, nor much of a crème fraiche tang in the ice cream, but the dish was delicious as it was and we didn’t miss either.

The London pubs I’ve visited for a Sunday roast in the last year or two – and I mean the gastropub kind here, not your local Wetherspoon – price their roasts between £12 and £16, sometimes more. Taking that into account, I think the Hatchetts offering is well worth the extra two or three quid more and I’d absolutely recommend it.

At the moment the downstairs dining room lacks atmosphere – not enough locals have discovered just how good the food is. Sadly, it’s not a particularly attractive space either; very 1980s. A polished concrete floor and some fun wall art are the only concessions to the current decade. The more casual upstairs bar area is far more appealing, and benefits from natural light during the day too so I’d suggest asking for a table there instead if it’s not too busy.

If you are a fan of really excellent Sunday roasts, this is definitely one to add to your list.

Kavey Eats dined as guests of Hatchetts Restaurant.

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Kiri Restaurant | Mayfair’s New Japanese Izakaya

Izakayas are to Japan what the pub is to the UK.

An izakaya is a place for drinking and eating with friends, offering a great drinks list and plenty of small plate sharing dishes to pair with sake, beer or your tipple of choice.

Kiri Restaurant is the latest offering from Saga Japanese Restaurants, the group behind Chisou in Mayfair and Knightsbridge. Managing Director, David Leroy tells us how Kiri came about – several months ago, when it seemed likely that they would need to relocate Chisou Mayfair branch, they took on the old Gigi’s site on Woodstock Street in preparation for the move. When that turned out not to be the case, they decided to keep the new site and create something a little different to their Chisou offering.

Kiri Japanese Izakaya Restaurant on Kavey Eats (c) Kavita Favelle- Kiri Japanese Izakaya Restaurant on Kavey Eats (c) Kavita Favelle-182809 Kiri Japanese Izakaya Restaurant on Kavey Eats (c) Kavita Favelle-194822

In Chisou, they offer a fairly traditional Japanese restaurant experience. For Kiri, the group’s senior chefs put together a menu designed specifically to work with the drinks list; a more informal style of eating. The sake list features a range of bottles not available anywhere else in the UK and the drinks menu also includes a strong selection of umeshu and wine, plus a few Japanese beers, shochu and big brand spirits.

Like pubs here, izakayas in Japan run the gamut from cheap and cheerful to elegant and expensive. Kiri sits in the second category, though the prices are very fair for the quality of ingredients and cooking we experienced.

Kiri Japanese Izakaya Restaurant on Kavey Eats (c) Kavita Favelle-183828 Kiri Japanese Izakaya Restaurant on Kavey Eats (c) Kavita Favelle- Kiri Japanese Izakaya Restaurant on Kavey Eats (c) Kavita Favelle-193732

We tried three sakes through our meal.

The first was a punchy Fisherman junmai ginjo from Shiokawa Niigata that was full of fruit aroma, meaty umami, fresh green fruit but with a hint of sweetness. Recommended in the menu as a match for lighter dishes that would usually pair with white wine, we felt it would be a better substitute for red wine.

Likewise, its sister sake Cowboy Junmai Ginjo, which was suggested as an alternative for red wine drinkers, we found altogether lighter with clean pared back fruit notes, unripe pear, and less of an umami hit. We thought this one would be better as a substitute for white wine!

We also enjoyed a Red Label Junmai from Hakukko Hiroshima – a wonderful, easy-drinking sake with plenty of fruity aromas and the classic sake flavour profile.

I am a sucker for umeshu, and loved my glass of the Umeshu Gyokuro – an umeshu flavoured with green tea. It was super sweet, with little evidence of the green tea, but delicious nonetheless.

Kiri Japanese Izakaya Restaurant on Kavey Eats (c) Kavita Favelle-9515

I love the subtle flavours of Agedashi tofu (£5) and this was no exception. Large, superbly soft cubes of gently fried tofu were served in a rich vegetarian dashi broth made from mushrooms and seaweed. On top of the tofu were slices of slippery, meaty mushroom, fresh spring onion and a generous pile of nori.

Kiri Japanese Izakaya Restaurant on Kavey Eats (c) Kavita Favelle-9508

I’m not always a big one for salads but thought it wise to have some vegetables against all the fish and meat we ordered. The Kiri special salad (£6.50) was a superb choice, not only bright in colour but in flavours and textures too. The mix of tomatoes, beetroot, radish, broccoli and carrots in the house dressing worked beautifully, and we loved the crunch of the popped rice scattered over the top.

Kiri Japanese Izakaya Restaurant on Kavey Eats (c) Kavita Favelle-9506

Oh my goodness, it took all my will power not to immediately order a second Hotate to ebi no gratin (£9.50) – a creamy gratin of crab, scallop and prawns. Under a perfectly golden and crunchy crumb topping, the seafood was just cooked, allowing the flavours and texture of the fresh seafood to shine. Superb!

Kiri Japanese Izakaya Restaurant on Kavey Eats (c) Kavita Favelle-9517

Small but perfectly formed, the Kunsei maguro tataki (£8) arrived in a gorgeous pottery bowl. Perfectly seared slices of apple smoked tuna were served with a sharp onion sauce. This ticked all the boxes, and was gone far too quickly.

Kiri Japanese Izakaya Restaurant on Kavey Eats (c) Kavita Favelle-9522 Kiri Japanese Izakaya Restaurant on Kavey Eats (c) Kavita Favelle-9524

Next came a dish just perfect for soaking up delicious sake or beer! Satsuma imo no croquettes (£7) (sweet potato croquettes) were served hot out of the fryer on a generous bed of wasabi mayo. Soft and fluffy without being a pappy puree, and wrapped in crisp panko breadcrumbs, I could eat these every day.

Kiri Japanese Izakaya Restaurant on Kavey Eats (c) Kavita Favelle-9533

The kitchen decided some rice would be in order, and sent out this extra dish of Kimchee cha-han (£5.80), kimchee fried rice with Japanese mushrooms and a fried quail egg. The rice was sticky, with just the right level of kimchee to provide flavour without overwhelming the light flavours of other dishes and the egg delivered a perfect yolk porn moment!

Kiri Japanese Izakaya Restaurant on Kavey Eats (c) Kavita Favelle-9526 Kiri Japanese Izakaya Restaurant on Kavey Eats (c) Kavita Favelle-9529

Our waiter suggested Uzura-niku no norimaki age (£12) and we’re glad we tried it, though it was not one of our favourites of the meal. The cylinders of quail meat rolled in seaweed and breadcrumbs and deep fried had a fairly unexciting Western flavour profile, even with the faint hint of seaweed from the nori wrapping. The tonkatsu (brown) sauce was decent, though I found the pink peppercorns a little too powerful.

Kiri Japanese Izakaya Restaurant on Kavey Eats (c) Kavita Favelle-9535

What a fabulous rendition of Nasu dengaku (£5.50)! Instead of presenting a halved aubergine with glazed surface, we were served cubes of skin-on aubergine in a superbly rich, dark red miso sauce. The aubergine flesh was silky soft and the skin thin and crispy rather than the unpleasant chewiness I’ve sometimes encountered – this pleased me hugely as I love eating the skin.

Kiri Japanese Izakaya Restaurant on Kavey Eats (c) Kavita Favelle-9545

We decided to try two kushiyaki items, starting with the Getsuyo kushiyaki (£3.80 per skewer). These marinated rabbit skewers were cooked to perfection on the robata grill, with no chewiness or toughness that is so often the hallmark of grilled rabbit – there’s a good reason it’s so often stewed long and slow! These were as soft as chicken thigh, and with good flavour.

Kiri Japanese Izakaya Restaurant on Kavey Eats (c) Kavita Favelle-9542

Another winner was the Wagyu kushiyaki (£7.50 per skewer). I’ve had wagyu a few times in London restaurants and whilst it’s usually been good, it’s rarely had this level of marbling and tenderness, resulting it that signature melt-in-the-mouth quality that I so love about wagyu. The beef was cut into thin strips that were neatly folded onto the skewer, before grilling and serving with a black pepper sauce and sansho. Utterly superb!

Kiri Japanese Izakaya Restaurant on Kavey Eats (c) Kavita Favelle-9548 Kiri Japanese Izakaya Restaurant on Kavey Eats (c) Kavita Favelle-9553

On the date of our visit, there wasn’t a dessert menu available and the only offerings were a chocolate mousse or ice cream (£3.90). (Talking to friends who visited the week after, I believe there are now several more desserts available).

Since the ice cream offered far more interesting than the chocolate mousse, we went for one scoop of each. Matcha had a smack-you-around-the-face flavour, and I loved that it had not been over sweetened – a winner for anyone who loves the rich and slightly bitter green tea as I do, but too much for Pete. Black sesame was also punchy in flavour, and benefited from an utterly smooth texture – I’ve had other black sesame ice creams that failed to overcome a grittiness from the ground sesame seeds so this was a lovely surprise. Last of the three was a really unusual white miso ice cream, a very strange flavour that is hard to describe – a little like buttermilk or funky milk, but not quite like either. A good trio of ice creams with strong flavours and great texture.

What impressed me most was the quality of ingredients and cooking – not one dish was disappointing; though we naturally loved some more than others we enjoyed everything we tried. I’m still dreaming about some of them a couple of weeks later!

Kavey Eats dined as guests of Kiri Restaurant.

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A Food Lover’s City Break in Ottawa’s Byward Market

Ottawa has a bit of a bad rap amongst Canadians.

Visiting Toronto in Ontario and Montreal in Quebec, as soon as we mentioned that we were heading to the nation’s capital we were immediately asked why and told not to bother! Ottawa was dismissed as dull, boring and not worthy of our time by several people we encountered. I suspect a lot of this is down to the fact that for many Canadians, their first (and often only) experience of Ottawa is on a school trip where they are forced to traipse around Parliament Hill – the seat of national government, the Canadian Museum of History, the War Museum, the National Library and other such places guaranteed to make a teenager yawn.

But the reality is that Ottawa is a wonderful city to visit, especially for those of us with a love of beautiful architecture and good food and drink.

Of course, you can visit Parliament Hill and one or more of Ottawa’s many museums if you like – as well as the ones I’ve already mentioned, there are museums for Agriculture and Food, Aviation and Space, Science and Technology, History, Nature and Art.

Collage - Ottawa 2016

But we chose to focus our short visit on the food and drink delights of Byward Market and this bright and bustling neighbourhood quickly won over our hearts and our bellies.

In a rare case of perfect timing, we were able to stay in the brand new Andaz Ottawa Byward Market, which opened just days ahead of our visit. Located right in the heart of the neighbourhood, the Andaz provided luxurious rooms with beautiful views across the city, a good solid breakfast to start the day and warm and friendly service.

Andaz Hotel - Ottawa 2016

As soon as we had arrived, checked in and sent the car to be parked we booked ourselves onto a cruise along ‘the Canal’ with Rideau Canal Cruises. Unlike other tourist cruises we have taken, we really appreciated having a live commentary rather than a canned one, and our guide gave us a great introduction to the history of the canal, and the city itself.

Rideau Canal Collage - Ottawa 2016

In short, Ottawa was originally named Bytown for Colonel John By, the British royal military engineer who built the Rideau Canal, a strategic waterway between Kingston and Montreal. As the town grew, Colonel By also laid out street plans for two neighbourhoods known then as Uppertown, where the wealthier residents lived, purchased plots and built grand homes, and Lowertown, which was leased to Irish and French Canadian immigrants and labourers. Is is the area of Lowertown that is now known as Byward Market and is a bustling and eclectic food-focused neighbourhood. Just before being chosen by Queen Victoria as the capital of her colony in Canada, Bytown was renamed to Ottawa.

For fellow history geeks… click here for the longer version...

The place we know now as Ottawa has been inhabited for over 6500 years by native Canadian populations, chiefly the Algonquin people who settled along the banks of the Ottawa River which they used as a highway for trade and cultural exchange. It was first visited by European explorers in 1610, followed by traders and missionaries. In 1800, a New England trader settled there, creating a small but thriving agricultural community (called Wrightsville for its founder) and establishing an immensely successful lumber business.

But it was not until 1826 that the city proper really established itself, as hundreds of land speculators acted upon the news that British authorities were constructing a military canal that would connect Kingston to the south with Montreal to the North. The purpose of the canal was to provide a secure transportation route that would bypass the stretch of the St Lawrence River that bordered New York and had exposed British forces to American enemy fire in the War of 1812.

The building of the canal was overseen by British military engineer Colonel John By, and took six hard years. By’s amazing feat of engineering, during which he overcame all manner of difficulties – from malarial swamps to the requirement to build far more locks than anticipated to allow for changing levels – are clearly recognised today but at the time he was soundly derided for escalating costs, loss of life and the lengthy construction period. During the period of construction, By established a military barracks where Parliament Hill now sits and drew up street plans for Uppertown and Lowertown neighbourhoods. The growing city quickly became known as Bytown.

In those days, it was a violent and lawless place known for fighting, prostitution and thievery. Uppertown was a wealthy and predominantly Protestant neighbourhood where residents owned their lots and homes whereas Lowerton (where Byward Market sits today) was populated by poorer Irish immigrants and French Canadian lumberjacks, most of whom were Roman Catholic and were not permitted to buy land, nor participate in local governance. This resulted in huge animosity which often flared into vicious uprisings, culminating in a political crisis in the 1830s. At this point, the Crown finally allowed Lowertown residents to buy land and property and to vote, though it took another decade or two for the unrest to settle down.

The fate of the city finally changed for the better in the mid 19th century. In 1855 it was renamed to Ottawa and in 1857 Queen Victoria made the surprise decision to establish the province’s capital there, snubbing the political lobbyists of the fledgling nation’s more-established cities. Ottawa was far more defensible from American attack, being situated much further inland from the border, and the Rideau Canal meant that it was easy to supply from both east and west provinces. It was also the midpoint between Quebec City in the French-speaking Canada East and Toronto in the English-speaking Canada West. Soon after, construction of the rather grand Parliament Hill building began, now a key landmark of the Ottawa landscape.

Riding the canal was a very serene introduction to Ottawa, and we really appreciated the historical grounding we were given by our guide.

Byward Market Core Building Collage - Ottawa 2016

We built upon that by booking a guided walking food tour of Byward Market with C’est Bon, and were happy to find we were the only guests booked on that weekday afternoon.

Byward Market Neighbourhood Collage - Ottawa 2016

Our guide, Britney was a real food lover herself and enthusiastic about showing us around the neighbourhood, sharing lots of interesting stories about the area’s history as well as the various specialist retailers we visited. I loved learning that when Colonel By had laid out the neighbourhood street plan, he’d deliberately made George and York Streets extra wide to allow space for holding a market, and for the horses and carriages of both traders and visiting customers.

The tour includes lots and lots of stops at some of the best shops and stalls in the neighbourhood (including some in the covered market building itself) and tastings at many of them.

We loved trying Canadian cheeses at The House of Cheese, delicious raspberry cupcakes at The Cupcake Lounge (I’m not usually a huge fan of cupcakes but these were really amazing!), a cold fruit tea infusion at teastore (a store selling hundreds of homemade teas featuring all manner of teas, fruits and herbs ), maple syrup from producer Robert Hupé of Maple Country Sugarbush (who gave us a great primer on the production and types of maples syrup) and aged Parmigiano-Reggiano at Italian deli La Botegga Nicastro. And that’s not even the whole list!

One of my favourite stops was a specialist grocery shop called Byward Fruit Market, not least for the charmingly worn hand-painted shop sign outside. Inside, friendly staff proudly showed off their store and some of the more unusual produce and food products they stock.

Byward Market Fruit and Veg Collage - Ottawa 2016

I also loved the fresh produce market area, full of all manner of fruit and vegetables.

Britney explained how the signs above each stall tell customers more about the produce. A green sign indicates that the stall holder produces 100% of their goods themselves. If the sign is yellow, that indicates that the vendor produces at least 60% of their goods. And red is used for vendors who source most or all of their products from elsewhere.

While we were walking and talking fruits, Britney told us about a personal favourite of hers, the hardy kiwi aka arctic kiwi. To my delight, we found a stall selling these and bought a punnet – see the photo of bowls of red, green and blue fruit above? These smooth-skinned little green fruits are a type of kiwi fruit that can be eaten whole, skins and all and they are super sweet and delicious. We are hoping to grow them at home in our garden, thanks to the tip from Britney that these thrive in colder climates.

Byward Market Restaurants Collage - Ottawa 2016

As well as visiting so many food stalls and shops, we also stopped for sit-down tastings at a couple of local restaurants. We had some fresh guacamole and nachos at Mexican restaurant, Corazon De Maiz (considered by those in the know as one of the best eateries in the city), a fresh-out-of-the-tandoor hot-buttered naan at Shafali Indian (which we were able to watch being made), one of the best Naples-style pizzas I’ve had for a while at The Grand Pizzeria (where the pizza maker put on quite a show for us as he stretched the dough) and a amuse-bouche style taster of one of the sharing dishes at Play Food & Wine.

Byward Market is such a compact area – with hundreds of stalls, shops, cafes and restaurants – that you could certainly explore it on your own. However, we found the tour a really enjoyable way of getting a feel for the area, and then went on to explore it further on our own afterwards. C’est Bon offer several walking food tours in Ottawa including two in Byward Market, as there’s just so much to cover in this neighbourhood. We took the Byward Market Courtyards tour which covers the West side of the area; the other one is called the Lowertown tour and focuses on Dalhousie and Murray Streets.

Brew Donkey Black Tomato - Ottawa 2016

I mentioned right at the start that Ottawa is a great destination for food and drink lovers, and you may be wondering where the drink part of that is.

Although we weren’t in town on the right day to take one of Brew Donkey’s guided and chauffeured brewery tours, we were able to meet up with founder Brad Campeau who told us all about the booming beer scene in Ottawa. Within an hour of Ottawa city centre you can find nearly twenty craft breweries, many of whom have launched only within the last few years. There are a couple of micro-breweries right in the heart of town too, and several bars and restaurants that stock a great range of local beers. We met at Black Tomato, one such restaurant, and enjoyed a delicious dinner and some great beers.

If you plan in advance, you may also be able to coincide your visit with one of the beer markets or festivals run regularly in the city; a great way of meeting many of the brewers in one place, and sampling the range of their beers.

Beaver Tails - Ottawa 2016

One Ottawa institution I was very keen to visit was Beaver Tails, one of Canada’s most famous pastries, yet only harking back to 1978. It started out as a family-run food concession at a craft and community fair in Killaloe, Ontario before taking its first permanent home in Ottawa’s Byward Market. It’s now an international business with stores across Canada as well as franchises in America, Japan and South Korea.

Chloe Gervais, manager of the Byward Market store, was kind enough to let Pete and I have a go at making our own beaver tails, after showing us how it’s done.

Making Beaver Tails Wide Collage - Ottawa 2016
Click on the image to view a larger version

These days the whole wheat cracked wheat dough is made in a a central production centre and sent out daily to each store. Each piece is stretched out into the elongated shape of a beaver’s tail, before being slipped gently into the hot oil and turned over a few times as it deep fries. Once it comes out of the oil and has drained for a few seconds, it is painted with melted butter and generously topped with the customer’s chosen flavours – cinnamon sugar, maple butter, chocolate hazelnut spread, fresh sliced bananas, peanut butter and even a savoury option of garlic butter and cheese.

Pete did a great job, and made a delicious maple butter beaver tail which he enjoyed hot and fresh. I had mine with hazelnut chocolate spread with fresh bananas. Delicious!

Beaver Tails really come into their own during the very cold Ottawa winters when the Rideau Canal freezes over and a long stretch within the heart of the city becomes the second largest skating rink in the world at nearly 5 miles long. Beaver Tail set up stands along the length of the frozen canal, and sell lots of hot, freshly fried treats to the many skaters braving the cold weather. An hour of ice skating sounds like a great way to burn off enough calories to indulge in lots of these deep fried treats!

Sash Gelato Collage - Ottawa 2016

If you love gelato, do visit Sash Gelato Cafe – a locally-owned gelateria. They make truly excellent gelato every day using natural ingredients and there are some wonderful flavours to choose from. We visited both nights of our stay in Ottawa and I can strongly recommend their hazelnut chocolate, tiramisu and pistachio gelatos, all of which were superb. Pete gave their coffee a huge thumbs up too.

Bridgehead Roastery Collage - Ottawa 2016

My last recommendation is a local coffee chain with twenty branches around town, including one on Dalhousie Street by Byward Market.

Bridgehead’s history makes for interesting reading – it was initially set up in 1981 to support small-scale coffee farmers in Nicaragua, and was the first Fair Trade coffee offering in Ottawa. It’s been through a few changes of ownership since then.

We visited the roastery on our way out of town. Built in 2012, this is where the chain’s coffee is roasted and baked treats for the coffee shops are made. The roastery, located between China Town and Centretown West, is a spacious, high-ceilinged industrial cavern with coffee roasting to one side, a coffee shop to the other side and kitchens at the back. If you have a car, or are happy to use public transport to hop around town, do drop in for some excellent coffee.

Our two nights in Ottawa flew by far too quickly – we could easily have spent another day exploring just Byward Market alone, let alone venturing out to the many other appealing neighbourhoods in the city. On our next visit, we will also set a day aside to visit some of the many craft breweries in and around Ottawa and see more of the beautiful natural landscape of the region too.

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Foodies Break in Ottawa Canada (tall)

Kavey Eats visited Ottawa as guests of Ottawa Tourism.

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108 Brasserie | Dishes for Two in Marylebone Village

It’s taken me the better part of a year to get to 108 Brasserie, a bright, modern brasserie hotel restaurant located in the heart of Marylebone village.

Since January I’ve been receiving emails detailing each Dish of the Month, a featured main course designed to share between two. So far I’ve missed Josper grilled, dry aged tomahawk steak for two, with crunchy beer battered onion rings, homemade black truffle chips and a warming bone marrow gravy; roasted whole turbot with trumpet mushrooms, baby onions, spinach gratin and potato mousseline; roast Rack of slow-cooked neck of Devon lamb with spring vegetables; pan fried John Dory, fennel, pink grapefruit and tarragon vinaigrette and September’s Balmoral Estate venison Wellington with Savoy cabbage.

Luckily, October’s Dish of the Month was just as appealing – Josper grilled dry-aged porterhouse, baked bone marrow, hand cut chips and Stilton butter. Yeah!

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I’m always a little nervous about hotel restaurants – some are soulless places with menus designed to meet expense-account expectations. But I needn’t have worried. The Marylebone has an excellent location, surrounded by specialist food shops, cafes and restaurants and a good balance of office space and residential, which means the restaurant is extremely handy for a wide range of customers.

Although when we arrived, only two other tables were taken, within an hour, the place was almost full – impressive for a Monday lunch. People watching – a favourite pastime – had me guessing about which tables were business meetings (definitely the three men in suits that were posturing wildly at each other), which were hotel guests (perhaps the family of three on holiday in London?), which were ladies who lunch (the group of five?) and which might be clandestine romances or other more interesting rendezvous!

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Do not miss the home-made bread (£2.50) even if you’re not that hungry. Sourdough, Guinness brown bread and soda bread were all three very good but the Guinness brown bread was exceptional! Rich, treacly, moist with a deep flavour and just a touch of sweetness…

108 Brasserie London on Kavey Eats (c) Kavita Favelle-9291

And the good news is that it featured again in both our starters. The portion of Argyllshire smoked salmon was huge, though we ordered the smaller size (£9)– you can also order a larger portion and add scrambled eggs or avocado if you fancy, to make a perfect lighter lunch dish.

108 Brasserie London on Kavey Eats (c) Kavita Favelle-9298

Like the smoked salmon, my Dorset crab on toast (£12) came on toasted Guinness brown bread and with half a lemon handily wrapped and tied into muslin so the pips didn’t fall into my food. The serving of fresh, sweet crabmeat was generous, and I liked the balance of the lightly dressed watercress leaves and apple.

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On to the reason for our visit, October’s dish of the month. We ordered the Josper grilled dry-aged porterhouse, baked bone marrow, hand cut chips and Stilton butter (£65) to come medium rare, and it was cooked perfectly.

The dish was garnished with the Stilton butter (a really perfect addition to the beef), an additional jug of sauce – we chose Béarnaise – and baked breaded bone marrow, served in the half bone.

Also included is a bucket of fat golden chips – if you’re having starters and desserts, this will be more than enough, but if you’re just having mains, you may need an extra portion of chips – the same size bucket is also served to diners ordering a one-person meal such as the hamburger or rib eye steak. They’re decent too – crisp outside and fluffy within and wonderful dipped into the cheese butter and Béarnaise.

The beef, for those who like to know, is Scottish Aberdeen Angus dry-aged for 28 days and it was really very good. Great texture and flavour, excellently cooked; we enjoyed it enormously.

108 Brasserie London on Kavey Eats (c) Kavita Favelle-9307

I’ve been to more than one restaurant that excels at starters and mains but falls down on desserts. That’s definitely not the case at 108 Brasserie.

Lemon tart (£7) is a brasserie classic and this one was perfectly balanced between sweet and sharp and with that just-set texture to the filling that is so delightful to cut into.

108 Brasserie London on Kavey Eats (c) Kavita Favelle-9316

My favourite was the brown bread ice cream with caramelised walnuts and honeycomb (£7). As you might already have guessed, the ice cream is made using that delicious home-made Guinness brown bread and that really lifts it into the exceptional category – the crumbs of brown bread retain a dense chewiness that gives it a more substantial mouth-feel than most ice creams. The caramelised walnuts are sweet but with a decent bitterness from caramel properly pushed to the edge – a much needed balance to the super sweet honeycomb. I rarely go for ice cream when there are options such as warm chocolate fondant with peanut butter ice cream or baked coconut rice pudding with mango and passion fruit but in this case, I absolutely could not have been happier!

The wine list includes several very reasonably priced bottles and the presence of the neighbouring 108 bar means a wide selection of cocktails are also available.

Having already had positive reports from several friends, I was confident we’d enjoy our meal at 108 and yet I was still surprised at how much we enjoyed it – the menu is full of exactly the kind of food we really love eating, and the prices seem very reasonable for the quality as well as the generosity of portions.

Also worth mentioning is the set lunch menu, an absolute steal at just £17 for two courses and £23 for three, with a choice of three dishes for each course and all of them ones I’d happily order.

Kavey Eats dined as guests of 108 Brasserie.

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Sagardi | A Taste Of The Basque Country

Already well established in Spain and Latin America, Sagardi have now opened a restaurant in London serving their well-honed Basque country cooking. The restaurant group was founded by chef Iñaki Viñaspre and focuses on traditional food from the region, which he promotes in association with the Basque Tourism Agency. At the heart of the menu are Basque ingredients, flown in daily from San Sebastián, with a focus on grilled meats and fish and seasonal produce.

Sagardi Restaurant London on Kavey Eats (c) Kavita Favelle-181256 Sagardi Restaurant London on Kavey Eats (c) Kavita Favelle-181648

The restaurant is in Shoreditch, about ten minutes walk east of Old Street tube station. Just inside the door is a butcher’s counter, where the chefs can cut and prepare the meat. To the opposite side is a generous bar, and then one passes by the open kitchen to reach the main seating area.

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The interior is semi-industrial, with lots of bare concrete and exposed pipework but softened by lots of wood and leather; a kind of barnyard chic! I have no idea why there’s a vintage Basque fishing boat suspended to the ceiling – perhaps it represents the fish dishes on the menu? A large feature wine cabinet runs along the back wall.

Sagardi Restaurant London on Kavey Eats (c) Kavita Favelle-9213

I struggle with the menu, partly because there are many things that tempt, but more because so many of the dishes I want to try are available only in large sharing portions which means we’re restricted to things that only both of us would enjoy. Steak, for example, is impossible to order unless at least two people want it for their main – they have no one-person cuts available. I’d really have liked to try the beef sweetbreads but again, the portion is a whole piece, listed as a main dish priced at £26 – I’d like to see it portioned so it could be enjoyed as a starter.

As we juggle through our choices for starters, our waitress tells us that all tables are being served a complimentary taste of the traditional pan-fried Orio txistorra – these thin little sausages are chorizo-like in flavour and a perfect taste-bomb to start with – so we are finally able to narrow our choices enough to pick two temptations.

Sagardi Restaurant London on Kavey Eats (c) Kavita Favelle-9217

The charcoal-roasted Ibai pâté de Campagne (£12) is a really thick slice, served with a simple but delicious onion jam and some green leaves. I can’t detect any flavour notes from the charcoal roasting, but it’s a good, hearty pate. We enjoy it on excellent fresh sourdough bread (£2.50), served with the txistorra.

Sagardi Restaurant London on Kavey Eats (c) Kavita Favelle-9218

I guess the assumption is that every starter is intended to be shared, rather than individual diners choosing different ones – The grilled morcilla from Biscay (£9) doesn’t come out until we’re just finishing up the pâté. In our case it’s not an issue but I often dine with fussy eaters who won’t eat half of what I fancy, so it might be helpful for the staff to ask whether starters are being shared or not, and have the kitchen time delivery accordingly.

It’s a really delicious black pudding, and I’m impressed by how thin the skin is compared to ones I’ve had before. If you’re a fan of morcilla, you need to try this!

Sagardi Restaurant London on Kavey Eats (c) Kavita Favelle- Sagardi Restaurant London on Kavey Eats (c) Kavita Favelle-9224Sagardi Restaurant London on Kavey Eats (c) Kavita Favelle-9229

I would have preferred to order two different mains and taste a wider range of the menu, but as the smallest cuts of beef are huge, we went for one steak instead; it’s such a core feature of the menu. Two different options for Txuletón (Basque beef) are offered – vaca (ex dairy cows) and buey (Galician ox). After our helpful waitress Silvia showed us the two smallest cuts (so I could get a mental picture of just how enormous they were), we picked the 900 gram vaca, a ribeye on the bone, priced at £7/ 100 grams.

Cooked simply on the grill, it’s served sliced off the bone and laid out on a large plate. Salted to bring out the flavour, it’s a beautiful piece of beef, with a rich beefy flavour.

Sagardi Restaurant London on Kavey Eats (c) Kavita Favelle-9230 Sagardi Restaurant London on Kavey Eats (c) Kavita Favelle-9228

There are a few menu items that appear in more than one section of the menu – the slow-roasted Tolosa-style red piquillo peppers (£16) being listed as both a starter and a side dish. These were silky soft and absolutely delicious but seemed a small portion for the price tag. Our other side dish was more substantial – homemade Sagardi style potatoe wedges (£5) which are basically skin-on thick-cut chips.

Sagardi Restaurant London on Kavey Eats (c) Kavita Favelle-9238 Sagardi Restaurant London on Kavey Eats (c) Kavita Favelle-9239

I’m glad we decided to be a little greedy and squeezed in desserts!

This traditional Goxua sponge cake with chantilly cream (£7) is only for the sweet-toothed – a gorgeous sponge with a thick layer of cream, topped with a creamy custard and a cracking layer of bruléed sugar, it was super sweet, soft and very good.

Sagardi Restaurant London on Kavey Eats (c) Kavita Favelle-9247

Our second choice was another winner, though less of a hard hitter on the sugar front. Poached peaches in txakoli sparkling white wine syrup served with lemon verbena ice cream (£7) were a last taste of summer. Even with the ice cream, they were a much lighter choice. The chopped fruit was perfectly poached to retain its shape and yet be pleasingly soft all the way through; the syrup had a good balance between tartness and sweet and the wonderfully smooth lemon verbena ice cream was just the right partner for the peaches.

On the drinks front, I liked the list of sixteen gins offered for gin and tonic – and a choice of tonics too – and that my G&T was made freshly for me on a trolley pushed to our table. As I’d expected from the wine cabinets across the back wall, the wine list is extensive, with a strong selection from the Basque Country, and there are several Basque ciders as well – Sagardi is named for the term for the smell of apples when made into cider, after all. Several cocktails feature Txakoli firewater, with some classics cocktails also available. There are beers too – with a good range of styles offered rather than lager after lager.

Overall, we really enjoyed the meal and I’d certainly go back, though only with a group of at least four people.

You’ve already picked up on my frustration that the menu is designed for larger groups – even with two of us, the portion sizes were a challenge. Of course, I am certain this reflects the way people dine in the Basque Country; larger groups of family and friends can order lots of dishes to be shared family-style. For me, a little adjustment to better cater for those dining in ones, twos and threes would be a positive move – especially when it comes to the grilled meat dishes.

What I loved the most was the focus on fresh ingredients, cooked simply to let them shine. Everything we had was delicious.

Kavey Eats dined as guests of Sagardi London.

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The Ninth by Jun Tanaka

I like Jun Tanaka. I like his food, I like his approach and style of cooking, and on the occasions I’ve met him at a food event or cookery demonstration, I’ve liked his gentle and warm demeanour.

His latest restaurant has been on my To Eat list for several months.

Located on Charlotte Street in the heart of Fitzrovia – a neighbourhood full of restaurants, bars and food stores – this is The Ninth restaurant kitchen in which Tanaka has worked, giving rise to the minimalist name. The menu is all small plates, ideal for sharing but one or two dishes work equally well for a solo visit. The food is broadly French Mediterranean in style.

My visit coincided with one of the sunniest days of summer so the folding glass doors were pulled fully open to the breeze. Our table just inside the terrace afforded the perfect balance of blessed shade, fresh air and sunlight.

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Crisp red mullet, pickled carrots, fennel and shallots: a beautifully cooked piece of fish in a light, crisp batter, balanced nicely by the light pickled vegetables.

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Crisp lamb shoulder, tomato, watermelon and feta salad: I’ve come across watermelon and feta but wasn’t sure how well it would work with lamb shoulder and tomatoes, but of course it was excellent. Lovely crunch from little gem and cucumber and lots of flavour from softened red onions and a thick herby dressing.

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Pan-fried herb gnocchi, girolles and peas: Wish this dish had been a little more generous as it was superbly good. Soft, light, gnocchi packed with herb flavour, perfect coated in the thick garlicky sauce. The addition of girolle mushrooms and fresh peas was just the right choice.

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Salted beef cheeks, oxtail consomme, peas, broad beans and girolles: Another delicious dish, far more generous than the gnocchi so if you’re only ordering one or two, it may be worth asking staff about portion sizes. The salted ox cheek was soft, mildly salty, beefy and delicious with the vegetables of summer, shiny from the rich broth.

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Sorbet: the flavours of the day were strawberry and coconut, both packing a punch and both silky smooth with not an ice crystal in sight. We loved the extra touch of serving these in a freezer-chilled cast-iron serving dish, which kept them cool while we ate. The strawberry had that wonderful flavour of fully ripened fresh berries. Likewise the coconut was impressively intense, the sweeter of the two flavours.

The set lunch menu here is an absolute steal with two plates priced at £17 and three at £21. My friend and I ordered four savoury dishes and shared a dessert, making our food bill just £38 plus service. For cooking of this calibre, that must surely be one of the best deals in London right now?

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Gatti’s Italian Restaurant | City Point

Last week I was invited to a blogger dinner at Gatti’s, an Italian restaurant that’s recently moved to a new City Point location close to Moorgate station. The restaurant, which opened in Broadgate in 1989, is believed to have been named in honour of Luigi Gatti, a successful London front of house restaurant manager who was appointed by White Star Lines to run their exclusive Ritz Restaurant for first class passengers of the Titanic. Only 3 of nearly 70 staff working for the restaurant survived the sinking of the great ship.

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Owner Jenny Carpenter took over the restaurant in 2013 but learned shortly afterwards that the building was earmarked for destruction. So she decided to move the restaurant to a new location just half a kilometer away, that move being completed earlier this year. In honour of the move, she has launched new and old set menus, one to celebrate the traditional classic dishes and the other to showcase more contemporary twists on Italian cuisine.

The restaurant has a partnership with Veuve Cliquot which features on both menus so we started the evening with a tasting of the famous champagne house’s new Veuve Cliquot Rich, a sweeter offering developed for use in cocktails. Most of my dining companions found it too sweet on its own but enjoyed it in cocktails. With my sweet tooth, I preferred it plain. That said I’d not pay the high price point for it myself.

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An amuse bouche of parmesan sabayon with black truffle and a parmesan shaving was a deliciously rich start to our meal and I appreciated having the fresh truffles shown to the table as we ate.

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My friend and I split two starters so we didn’t have to choose between them. Grilled scallops, asparagus, ginger, garlic and fresh chilli dressing with crispy Parma ham was a large plate of three generously-sized fat scallops with the coral still attached – this makes me happy as it’s so rarely served and so full of flavour. The asparagus was a touch overcooked for me, very soft with no vegetable bite remaining. The dressing was delicious though the ginger rather subtle, and no sign of the chilli whatsoever; I don’t think that’s a bad thing, it worked well as it was.

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Tempura di Mare was enormous for a starter, a dinner plate piled high with battered prawns, scampi and calamari. Served with a tartar sauce, I’m not sure why this was labelled tempura rather than fritto but it was a good dish, either way. My only complaint here was the inclusion of unshelled butterflied king prawns, the shells far too thick to be edible and quite a pain to extract from the batter and shell.

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A palate cleanser of lemon and prosseco sorbet was superb, well balanced between sweet and sharp, and a good antidote to the buttery dressing on the scallops and the tempura batter.

Linguine All’ Aragosta (linguine with lobster and fresh tomatoes) proved true to the pattern, an enormous serving – more pasta than we cook for two of us at home. Once again, a generous amount of lobster meat made this very classic dish feel rather decadent .

Other mains on the table included ravioli of confit duck leg and porcini mushrooms with grated foie gras – this was not a success with clumsily thick pasta and a dense and dry filling dominated by the porcini rather than the duck. Scottata di Tonno, a large fried tuna steak with sesame seeds and pistachio pesto looked wonderful, and perfectly cooked tuna too. The Scottish beef fillet was also cooked beautifully and the port wine reduction looked right up my street, though the person who ordered it found it a touch sweet.

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One of the things I really loved seeing was the Gatti’s old-fashioned meat trolley – with a different roast served every day, this is fabulously retro! We tried small tasters of the day’s roast beef and it was superb, very good flavour and cooked perfectly rare with an outrageously beefy gravy generously poured over the plate. However, my Yorkshire pudding was really overcooked; burnt rather than pleasantly browned. I left it uneaten.

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We were given a taster of three desserts, though if I go again I’ll choose from the desserts trolley – a wonderful throwback to a bygone era. The passion fruit panna cotta was OK, a little too much gelatin gave it a hard and bouncy set rather than the lovely light wobble of a good example. Chocolate mousse was a disaster, the pleasant chocolate orange flavour altogether cancelled out by a very grainy texture – perhaps the chocolate seized or the eggs cooked and curdled – whatever caused it, it’s a shame the kitchen didn’t notice and make a fresh batch. Best of the three was the tiramisu, light, full of flavour and a satisfying finish.

Overall, Gatti’s is a mixed bag. Some superb dishes, made with good quality ingredients, cooked well and full of flavour. Others that missed the mark and let the side down. A generosity of spirit in the portions, including the more expensive ingredients such as truffle and lobster, certainly make for a feeling of goodwill and hospitality; this is echoed by enthusiastic kitchen and front of house teams. Value is very good, with both set menus priced at just £34.99 for three courses plus a glass of Veuve Cliquot champagne. This would be a fun place to come with a group, especially for fussy eaters – I think Italian is one of those cuisines that nearly everyone enjoys.

Kavey Eats dined as a guest of Gatti’s restaurant.

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Hatchetts Restaurant & Bar

Hatchetts Restaurant in Shepherd Market has quite the back story and to make a nice change, it’s a real one rather than a marketing fairy tale (albeit with no direct link to the new business). Built in 1703, Hatchett’s Hotel (with the White Horse Cellar pub in the basement below) was a popular stopover for cross-country travellers catching a horse-drawn coach to or from the West Country. Dickens mentioned it in his Pickwick Papers and the traffic jams caused by the flurry of mail and passenger coaches earned it the local nickname of Piccadilly Nuisance. For well over two centuries it ran as a hotel and pub, but the business failed in the 1950s. A few years later it was bought by an entrepreneur who turned it into a glitzy nightclub, music venue and restaurant (known as Hatchetts without the apostrophe); a glamorous hub for celebrities and party animals in the sixties and seventies.

This month, Hatchetts Restaurant and Bar has opened at nearby 5 White Horse Street (the street name no doubt being the tie in to the historic hotel and bar). It offers a small ground floor bar serving cocktails and small plates and an 80-seat downstairs restaurant offering modern British cooking. Owned, designed and run by Duncan Watson-Steward, an experienced pub restaurateur, the kitchen is run by Chef Andrew Evans who’s worked alongside many of the UK’s top chefs including Hix, Ramsay, Wareing, Hartnett and Henderson.

On a warm summer evening, with windows and doors flung open, the upstairs bar was full of boisterous customers but the basement restaurant was very quiet with just the two of us, and later one more couple. I imagine the too-loud music was an attempt to provide some ambience but I’d have been happier without it; I’m sure that will improve as the restaurant becomes better known and more popular.

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The menu is enormously appealing, making it really hard to choose – we skipped the small plates and salads and ordered from the more traditional starters, mains and desserts.

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While we were enjoying the fresh bread (with Netherend Farm butter), a lovely amuse bouche was served. Described as Modern Greek Salad, this sounded deceptively simple but delivered such intensity of flavours, it was quite a revelation. The fresh ripe tomatoes were, as expected, each distinct in flavour but it was the combination of whipped feta (with a texture like yoghurt), little cubes of pickled cucumber and powerful black olive tapenade that really made this dish shine – each one balancing so beautifully with the star-of-the-show tomatoes.

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My starter of Devonshire Crab & Nectarine Salad, Brown Crab Mayo, Cucumber, Samphire & Borage (£11.5) was another winner. I couldn’t imagine in my head quite how the combination of very thinly nectarine and crab mayonnaise would work but it did – the sweetness and texture of the ripe fruit complementing rather than disguising white crab meat mixed into a brown crab meat mayonnaise. On the side, a pretty salad of samphire, cubes of pickled cucumber, tiny rolls of fresh cucumber and lovely borage flowers and leaves. I sometimes find that unusual cheffy pairings of ingredients don’t work – there’s damn good reason they aren’t a classic combo – but this peachy crab duo was spectacularly successful.

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Pete’s Scorched Mackerel, Apple & Fennel Purée, Mackerel Tartare (£7) was quickly polished off too. The scorch-blackened  fillet was nicely cooked – crispy skin and silky soft flesh in every bite. Apple and fennel puree balanced the oily fish and the tartare on top added a welcome freshness.

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When ordering my starter I dithered between the crab and the Spiced Lamb Sweetbreads, Minted Peas & Beans, Lamb Jus (£8.5) so the chef kindly sent out a little sample of the sweetbreads for me to try. Sweetbreads, when cooked well, are a thing of beauty and these were sublime, meltingly soft with a deep rich flavour further enhanced by a rich gravy. Peas and pea shoots were a great foil, the slightly woolly broad beans less so.

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I could not resist the 12oz Shorthorn Ribeye on the Bone, Lyonaisse Potatoes & Bone Marrow Gravy (£24) and wasn’t disappointed. Shorthorn beef, dry-aged for 35 days, the steak was full of flavour and perfectly cooked to my requested medium despite the thin cut – I go medium rare for most cuts but prefer the extra cooking to melt the fat in a rib-eye. The Lyonnaise potatoes were delicious, finished in butter and mixed with properly caramelised onions, I ate far too many! A deep, rich chicken stock gravy and a pile of watercress finished the dish. When you serve a simple classic, it must be done flawlessly and for me, this was.

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The first thing I want to applaud about the Caramelised Onion Tart, Roasted Baby Beets, Braised Courgette & Watercress, Rosary Ash Goats Cheese (£11) is the price – how often are vegetarian dishes ludicrously overpriced to be in line with the meat and fish? Very refreshing to see prices reflective of the cost of ingredients! As for the dish itself – crisp and crumbly shortcrust pastry filled with caramelised onion and rich cream and cheese, though the filling was far sloppier in texture than expected. In the side salad, salty Ash goats cheese balanced sweet roastd baby beets, tossed together with braised courgettes and mixed green leaves. A really lovely summery dish with lots of flavour.

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Desserts were too much of a temptation, even though we were fairly full. My Dark Chocolate Marquis, Milk Chocolate Mousse, Cherry Glaze & Cherry Sorbet (£7) was decent – rich dense dark chocolate base, light milk chocolate mousse and a really punchy morello cherry sorbet – a new take on the flavours of black forest cake.

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Pete’s Buttermilk Pudding & Poached Rhubarb, Rhubarb & Hisbiscus Sorbet (£7) put a smile on his face. The wibbly-wobbly rectangular buttermilk pudding layered with poached rhubarb was panna cotta-like in texture, and nicely complemented by a ball of rhubarb and hibiscus sorbet. Also on the plate, little blocks of gin and tonic jelly, wild hibiscus flowers poached in rose tea syrup and some freeze dried yuzu. Attractive and unusual without being outlandish, this was a pretty and well balanced pudd.

Through all of the dishes we tried, the combination of flavours and textures and the skilful way everything was cooked were a delight. I’m certainly keen to go again in a few months and see what chef Evans does with autumn and winter seasonal ingredients.

I’m not a fan of noisy shouting-filled restaurants, but the ambiance and low-level buzz of more customers will certainly improve the experience, and that shouldn’t take long. I am sure it’ll be busier a few more weeks into business.

Be aware that, like many basement restaurants in historical buildings, there is no disabled access, nor would any but the narrowest of wheelchairs be able to access the ground floor facilities. There are (long term) plans to install a lift, but no ETA on that for the moment.

Kavey Eats dined as guests of Hatchetts Restaurant.

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Shaking the Shakshuka at Cafe Loren, Camden

A dish from the Middle East that’s become increasingly popular in recent years, shakshuka is perfect for breakfast, brunch, lunch or dinner – a delicious bowl of eggs braised in a spiced tomato sauce, usually served with freshly baked bread. Cafe Loren owner Lee Penn is a huge fan which is why his Camden-based restaurant specialises in this one dish. He first learned to make the dish from his grandmother, who cooked it for the family often. But he soon branched out to innovate many variations, running his own shakshuka restaurant in Israel before moving to London and launching Cafe Loren.

Just under the bridge by Camden Lock, several small tables are nestled in the space beneath one of the arches, right at the heart of Camden’s best shopping and eating. It’s a cosy little space, warm and welcoming.

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The menu is short and sweet; eight different shakshukas plus a seasonal special that changes daily and a few sharing plates that make a great shared starter or a handy lunch for one on their own. There are also a few sweet treats if you want to pop in for a quick coffee break rather than a full meal.

Not all the shakshuka options include tomato – there’s a Green Shakshuka (£8.70) featuring spinach, leeks, green peppers, avocado and basil and a White Shakshuka (£8.60) that combines onions, mushrooms, feta and cream cheese.

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We start with the Mediterranean Plate (£5.50) of challah bread, homemade hummus, cheese burakas and olives. Also on the board are sharp salty olives, some crunchy slices of cucumber and a glossy pot of tahini. The hummus is delicious, fresh and with great texture and flavour. The cheese buraka is lifted by the properly tangy mature cheese within and the challah bread is wonderfully fresh and soft.

Lee explains that he buys the bread in fresh every day from a local specialist bakery.

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Red Shakshuka (£8.50) is a classic combination of eggs poached in a tomato, onion, red pepper, girl and harissa mix. It comes with olives, tahini and a delicious plump pitta bread. I find the sauce a little light and liquidy – I prefer my shakshuka sauce to be richer and more cooked down, but the flavours are delicious and wonderful with the pitta.

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The Green Shakshuka (£8.70) is likewise quite wet, though that works well for dipping chunks of the seeded brown roll. It comes with a tangy garlic sauce and I add a tiny pot of smoked salmon on the side (80p). I love this idea of a green shakshuka and the basil flavour of the sauce is delightful.

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Drinks include the usual hot teas, coffees and Hot chocolate (£2.85) plus a selection of freshly made fruit and vegetable smoothies and a list of iced coffees for summer.

Open a year this week, Cafe Loren has already built up a loyal customer base who drop by regularly for a tasty meal at any time of the day.  Open from 8.00 am to 8.30 pm, this is a lovely addition to the food options around Camden Lock.

Kavey Eats dined as guests of Cafe Loren.

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