I am not a classy bird. The truth is that words like elegant, sophisticated and lady-like are not ones you’d choose to describe me… and that’s OK by me. On the inside, I’d like to think I’m intelligent, fun, passionate, surprising and all kinds of other interesting things… and I reckon those aspects of me are far more worthy of attention than my body, my clothes, shoes and handbag, how I wear my hair, the fact that I don’t wear make-up or that I walk a little pigeon-toed.

I say this because The Sportsman in Kent reminds me of myself in pub form.

On the outside, the pub looks a little tatty, perhaps even unkempt. If you judged it on its cover, you might not even bother to stop, let alone go in and get to know it. But step inside and it’s warm and welcoming. The space is stripped back and open, with wooden floors, (generously sized, uncovered) tables, chairs and panelling. There are dramatic paintings of seascapes hanging on plain pale walls. Early on an October evening, huge windows spill in lots of light; later candles and pendant lights keep things cheery. And the staff are full of smiles, as they bustle behind the bar getting ready for the dinner service. Throughout the evening they are attentive, eager to help and to share the delight of dinner in this wonderful place.

That’s what this place is famous for, you see.

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Self-taught chef-patron Steve Harris and wine-expert brother Phil took over The Sportsman in 1999, with financial support from another brother, Damian. Since then, it’s built a huge fan base of locals and visitors alike and was awarded a Michelin star in 2008. In an interview after gaining the star, former City worker Harris explained that he felt many top restaurants in ’90s London tended to alienate ordinary people “from the experience by all the flummery that goes with it”. He wanted to “democratise” good food by serving it without the frills and fuss. From the start, he focused on using local, seasonal ingredients – something that’s matter of course now but was far less so when he opened. Brother Phil created an affordable and appealing wine list. As a Shepherd Neame pub, the beer was already taken care of.

Our meal is exactly what Harris envisaged – the highest quality of food, cooked and presented skillfully and inventively, served in an informal and relaxing setting by staff who are friendly and knowledgeable rather than stiff or formal. It’s a wonderful combination.

Having made sure to request it in advance, we enjoy the tasting menu which gives us the opportunity to try a much wider selection of Harris’ cooking.

We are offered the choice of seeing the menu in advance or experiencing it as a surprise. We choose the latter, though I do cave and ask for the menu two thirds of the way through the meal! Several of the courses served aren’t listed, so a few hastily scribbled notes serve as a memory jogger.

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Pickled herring with crab apple jelly, cream cheese and soda bread and parmesan and Ashore cheese and tomato biscuits.

Tasty little bites to kick things off…

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Egg yolk, smoked eel, parsley sauce and horseradish cream with sherry vinegar.

I could eat ten of these, though it’s as well I don’t, given all that is to come. Bursting with soft liquid flavour and colours that are each reassuringly robust and yet work with each other beautifully.

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Baked rock oyster, Jersey cream, rhubarb granita, crystallised seaweed.

I’ve eaten oysters plenty of times but never really understood what the fuss has been about. This dish, and the one after, really open my eyes to just how delightful the delicate flavour and texture of an oyster can be, when carefully paired with supporting elements.

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Poached rock oyster, beurre blanc, pickled cucumber, avruga caviar.

If the previous dish opened my eyes, this one opens my heart to oysters! I’ll never look at them in the same way again. Yes, it’s that astounding!

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Bread, butter and salt.

Not only are the three breads home-made – rosemary and red onion foccacia, sourdough and malted soda bread – but the butter is home-churned and even the salt is made from Seasalter sea water. I like all the breads but the dark soda bread in particular is a source of joy.

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Salt-baked celeriac, stewed apple and fresh cheese.

I’ve encountered salt-baked celeriac a few times in the last couple of years, in Scandinavian cookery demonstrations and classes, mostly. I really like it’s earthy taste and slight sweetness. I find the mustardy sauce a little too strong in this dish, though.

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Crab, carrot and hollandaise.

I’m not sure the carrot adds much on the taste front and though the colour is pretty, I find the crunch a little odd against the crab. But the crab is super! Fresh and sweet and generous and gone far too quickly!

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Slip sole in seaweed butter.

Slip sole, so Wiki informs me, is simply the name we give to small common sole; I haven’t come across it before. Firm, delicate and buttery but easy to slip off the bone, it’s fantastically well paired with the salty mineral flavours of the seaweed butter.

Later, at the bar, Phillip Harris tells me about how they dry the seaweed themselves; I’m minded to try some Mara Seaweed varieties mixed with butter and served over white fish or scallops.

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Brill braised in vin jaune with bearded tooth fungus.

This simple dish is my favourite of the whole meal. The way the vin jaune sets off the fish without overwhelming it is an utter delight. With a little sweet crunch from the beans and soft woodiness from the mushrooms, this plate is so tasty, so simple and so well-balanced I am left wondering why I don’t eat seafood more often.

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Lamb from Monkshill Farm (1).

Little two-bite breaded morsels of tender lamb belly are served with a fresh mint sauce. Unlike the usual vinegary condiment, this mint sauce is beautifully sweet and sharp and herbaceous and I find myself drinking sip after sip from the little cup, after the lamb is eaten. Of course, I haven’t realised another lamb dish is coming but our waitress doesn’t blink an eyelid and brings out more sauce before the next dish arrives.

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Lamb from Monkshill Farm (2).

The second serving of lamb includes a plump piece of rump and a cube of braised lamb shoulder. The first is a touch chewier than expected, but tastes very good. The second is marvellously soft and richly flavoured by its high fat content. I love the crispy charred spring onions and fresh sweet carrot but yearn for a little more sauce.

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Wild bramble ice lolly.

Essence of blackberries, the lolly starts to melt quickly. It’s served with a “cake cream” made from Madeira cake, cream and milk and the contrast between that and the juicy ice lolly is almost shocking to the palate. Fabulous!

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Meringue ice cream, sea buckthorn and seawater.

When I’ve had sea buckthorn before, this citrussy fruit must have been sweetened quite a bit. Here it’s very sharp, too sharp for me, and my jaws clench against the astringency. Pete, on the other hand, finds it delicious.

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Jasmine tea junket with rosehip sauce and breakfast crunch.

This dish isn’t on the tasting menu, but having spotted it on the à la carte puddings board, I asked earlier whether we might add it on as an extra or if one of us could swap out the meringue and buckthorn dessert. I’ve heard of junket, you see, but don’t think I’ve tried it before and I’d like to. Phillip graciously makes it a swap so Pete and share one of each between us. I am glad to try this, especially as the other dessert is too sharp for me. I love the wobbly nature of the set milk junket – though I struggle to detect any jasmine – and I enjoy the fruity sauce and the slightly incongruous crunch of granola and toasted seeds on top.

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Petit fours.

Already full to bursting, we only just manage these tiny custard and raspberry and chocolate tarts; crumbly pastry, gooey fillings. A lovely full stop to an epic meal.

All of this for just £65 per head (tasting menu) is astonishingly good value; a hard-to-get-my-head-around kind of good value, honestly speaking. The food, the setting, the service and the price all make it a no-brainer that this place is as well-loved as it is. Reservations are most definitely needed. The tasting menu must be booked 48 hours in advance.

We stayed overnight in a seafront hotel in nearby Whitstable and drove home through the most spectacular sheet lightning display I’ve ever seen. Bright enough to light up everything around us like day – if I’d been told it was a lightshow put on by The Sportsman, I might well have believed it. They are awfully talented!

Sportsman on Urbanspoon 
Square Meal

 

On a Saturday lunchtime, as I make my way from tube station to The Courtesan restaurant, Brixton is buzzing. I love walking down the long curve of Atlantic Road, peering at all the fish mongers, butchers and grocers, particularly fascinated by the number of items on sale that I don’t recognise and can’t identify. Only a short walk past the food shops, market and ever-vibrant Brixton Village, I find what I’m looking for.

Named for the Lady of the Court, the restaurant offers “modern dim sum” alongside selected teas, wines and cocktails.

Owner Hammant Patel Villa, a professional industrial designer with a passion for oriental food, was captivated by the stories and traditions of the original Chinese courtesan (and is at pains to dismiss the crasser modern meaning that the word has taken on). Originally, courtiers and courtesans were simply those who were regularly in attendance at the royal court. Many were nobles, but there were also members of the clergy, soldiers, business men and agents and even clerks and secretaries. Political lobbyists are perhaps the closest modern-day equivalent.

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For Hammant, the Lady Courtesan is a figure of mystery and elegance, power and knowledge, perhaps also a little romance and sadness. Her portrait hangs at one end of the main room and the decor of the restaurant pays homage; he points to a patterned wallpaper – he chose it to represent the tears of the courtesan, he explains. There is much dark wood, some a little worn with the patina of age, and the space is hung with elegant light fittings. The Birdcage bar is appropriately themed, with shelving units designed to mimic the real cages displayed above. Downstairs is the “Boudoir”, a dark and intimate space with its own bar, used for special events and available to book.

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I am really impressed by the drinks menu. For wine drinkers, nearly all the wines listed can be ordered by the glass or the bottle. There are three “desert wine” [sic] listings, though one is a plum wine and one a very dry sherry, so this section needs more attention. The beer list is short but more interesting than many, with a regular Brew, IPA and Chocolate Porter from Chapel Down Winery’s Curious beer brand and Imperial Lager and Cerne Dark Lager by Krusovice in the Czech Republic. There are champagnes and proseccos and a long list of inventive mixers for them. The usual comprehensive list of spirits, liqueurs, etc. is available. There’s even a sake. Soft drinks include a better range of juices than normal, though none are specified as fresh. The choice of teas is pleasing, ranging from Jasmine, Chamomile and White Peony & Rosebuds to Pu Erh, Lapsang Souchong and Iron Goddess of Mercy (£4.90), which I enjoy with my meal.

The cocktail list is particularly appealing; instead of following the same clichéd path of bitters this and vermouth that it offers more unusual creations such as China Ghost (£7.90, Wyborowa Vodka, Rose Liqueur, Lychee, Rose Peony) and Wang Zhaojun (£8.80, Violet Liqueur, Jasmine Tea, Beefeater 24 Gin, Wyborowa Vodka). Hammant says he likes to think of these as flavours the Courtesan might like, but that are also “ethereal, life and death in the same glass”. Both are utterly delightful!

I’m pleased both by the inclusion of tea in some of the cocktails and the pleasant change of there being some sweeter combinations for those of us that aren’t so keen on sour or bitter. There are also a few non-alcoholic cocktails, based mainly on the tea menu.

Once drinks have been ordered, the dim sum starts to arrive.

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Char Siu Puff (£3.90) are decent in texture but the pork is a little under-flavoured.

Pan Fried Pork Dumplings (£4.20) are excellent. The filling is juicy and very delicious, wrapped in a thin skin which is soft in places, crispy in others.

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Trio of Steamed Dumplings (£5.80) include one each of Prawn & Crab Dumpling, Wasabi King Prawn Dumpling and Scallop & Shrimp Dumpling. The wasabi nearly blows my head off, it’s incredibly potent, but once my eyes stop streaming, I enjoy the set.

Cheung Fun Tri (£5.20) comes with one each of Roast Pork, Prawn with Beancurd and Vegetables With Beancurd. Surprisingly, the vegetarian one is my favourite, with a perfect balance of tastes and textures.

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Char Siu Buns (£4.20) have an unusual style of dough, but are enjoyable nonetheless.

I ask for an order of Taro Croquettes (£3.90), one of my dim sum stalwarts and a good judge of a kitchen, I think. They are tasty, but the inner casing is far thicker than usual, leaving less room inside for the pork filling.

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Peanut Celery Salad (£3.50) is served warm. I hate celery, but do try the peanuts and love how they are soft rather than crunchy. Others enjoy the dish as a whole.

Stormy Seaweed (£3.90) is doused in a fiery dressing, a touch too fierce for me, but simple and a good match with the seaweed.

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Described as “spare pork ribs, first braised, then fried with Szechuan batter”, the Szechuan Style Ribs (£6.50) are fabulous. I’m not sure I’ve had spare ribs that have been breaded and fried before, but it works superbly well. Again, these are fairly hot on the chilli front, as I expected from the name.

Hot Frogs Legs (£7.20) are also utterly delicious, served hot out of the fryer. But beware – Hammant instructed his chef that he wanted the frogs to kick hard, so the chilli quotient is not for the faint hearted.

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I’ve always loved Black Sesame Balls (£4.50) but order them only rarely; they are so rich I can’t eat more than one and few of my friends like them. So it is a pleasure to have them here. The soft glutinous coat around a gooey black filling is spot on.

At the end comes Rose Peony Chocolate Truffles (£4.70). The ganache is made from cream infused with the white peony and rosebud tea. They are rich and dark and perfect to have with coffee, though the tea flavour hasn’t permeated much, that I can detect.

 

I am pleasantly surprised by the range and quality of the dim sum, having wondered ahead of my visit whether a design-lead space with a strong drinks focus would really do justice to the food. But I needn’t have worried, the dim sum is, in the main part, very good. Prices are reasonable too, especially for the cocktails list which is great value.

My visit also reminds me how easy it is to get down to Brixton, and a visit to those fish mongers, butchers and grocers is on the cards soon.

 

Kavey Eats was a guest of The Courtesan.

Courtesan Dim Sum Bar on Urbanspoon

 

I’ll be telling you all about Omar Allibhoy – the wonderfully talented chef behind Tapas Revolution – in an upcoming post (and reviewing his recently launched cookery book too). But in the meantime, let me urge you to visit one of his two restaurants; you won’t regret it! There you can fill up on dish after dish of Spanish treats, washed down with a glass or two of something wonderful. The original branch is located in Westfield shopping centre (near Shepherd’s Bush, London) and the second branch is in Bluewater shopping centre (in Greenhithe, Kent).

Pete and I visited the Westfield site to interview Omar (about how he came to cooking, about the restaurant, about his motorbike tour of Britain and the cookbook); during our chat the three of us ate our way through a wide swathe of the menu.

The restaurant is bright, light and open to the public, with a small and tidy open kitchen at its heart. Customers perch on stools around the surrounding counter, though there are some nearby tables and chairs available if you prefer. The menu is a delight; a tight list of dishes that appeal to a wide audience but also give a true picture of Spanish tapas. We watched people stop by for a quick coffee, do fork battle over a plate of octopus, greedily grab fatty slices of cured pork with their fingers and order hot, fresh churros to takeaway.

Customers can also buy a selection of specialist ingredients, should they be inspired to have a go themselves; certainly, Omar’s book makes tapas very achievable for home cooks.

Omar is certainly planning to expand the fledgling chain further afield, so non-Londoners, keep your fingers crossed for a branch to open near you.

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I love good food and was very excited to try so many of the listed dishes. And yet, one of the most exciting aspects of the menu for me was the excellent list of soft drinks. It’s hard not to feel a little deflated when restaurants put such great effort into their wine lists (and, lately, their beer lists too) but let themselves down by sticking to long life fruit juice and fizzy drinks for their non-alcoholic offering. That is not the case at Tapas Revolution!

Limonada casera (£2.25), described as homemade lemonade with a touch of saffron, is a full on explosion of flavour; it’s simultaneously sweet, very sharp and intensely citrus and takes on just a hint of earthiness (as well as vibrant colour) from the saffron. This one will definitely wake you up, if eating too much tapas is making you sleepy.

Horchata (£2) is a classic Spanish drink made from tigernuts, the tuber of a plant in the sedge family, distantly related to water chestnuts. The nuts are ground with sugar and water to make a milk-like liquid which is served ice cold as a summer thirst-quencher. Elsewhere in Europe, similar drinks are made from barley, almonds and even sesame seeds but the Spanish preference for tigernuts was introduced by the Moorish presence in Valencia many centuries ago. It’s a distinct flavour and not everyone’s cup of tea, but I like it very much.

Mosto (£2) is a sweet red grape juice that is not for the light-hearted. It’s almost syrupy in it’s sweetness, and is best enjoyed chilled. With my sweet tooth, I adore this.

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A board of Jamón ibérico de bellota (acorn-fed Iberian ham) de Guijuelo (£8.95) is the perfect balance of sweet, salty, fatty meat and, for the price, the serving is generous.

Pan con tomate (£2.95) is a classic, and something Omar tells us he enjoys for breakfast several times a week, advising us to rub garlic underneath and tomato on top of the bread. Somehow this dish of bread, garlic, tomato and oliveoil is so much more than the sum of its parts and we cannot resist a second order…

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An order of Pulpo a la Gallega (£6.25) brings us a dish of tender steamed octopus with potatoes and pimentón paprika. Juicy pieces of seafood have a strong enough flavour to stand up to the paprika. Great balance.

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The menu warns that the fried Pimientos de Padrón (£4.95) are sweet but that some can be quite spicy too! I love the charred flavour against the sweet pepper flesh.

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Calamares fritos (£4.75), when done well, are a thing of beauty but are so disappointing when they’re not. But these deep-fried baby squid are just perfect, served piping hot straight out of the fryer, the batter is crunchy and the squid inside soft and tasty. Spot on.

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The crisp-crumbed exterior of these Croquetas de jamón (£4.50) give way to hot, gooey bechamel studded with porky goodness. Perfect examples of Spanish ham croquettes. Give them a few moments to cool from the fryer, if you want to avoid the monkey-like, burnt-mouth noises my impatience had me squealing!

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Pinchos morunos con mojo picón (£6.50) is beyond my elementary Spanish skills; luckily the menu explains that this dish consists of marinated beef skewers with a spicy dipping sauce. Whilst the beef is cooked properly, the spices in the marinade taste raw and harsh to me, and it’s the only dish of the day that isn’t a runaway success. The spicy dipping sauce, though, is fabulous.

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I seldom bother to order Tortilla de patatas (£3.95) because I’m seduced by other more exciting options and an omelette made with potato and onion doesn’t leap off the page. But one mouthful of Omar’s tortilla and I am converted – there’s a depth of flavour from the sweet onions that I hadn’t expected, which is perfect with the very thin slices of soft potato and egg binding. It’s actually amazing!

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If you’re looking for comfort food, look no further than Fabada Asturiana, a  white bean stew with pork and chorizo that is the very definition of “hearty”.

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This innocuous looking dish is Quesada con Frutos Rojos (£3.50), a fresh cheese cake with red fruit, baked (much like a New York cheesecake but without a base, the juices of the fruits leak into the cheesecake as it cooks). Delicious but very filling, if you’ve already eaten as much as we have!

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I don’t know why Churros con chocolate (£3.50 to eat in, £2.95 to takeaway) fill me with such childish glee? Perhaps it’s the wonderfully winding shapes that remind of me of the black snake fireworks I loved when I was little. Or maybe it’s just the hot fried doughnut dough, with ridges that are perfect for cinnamon sugar to adhere to and the glass of tasty hot dipping chocolate they are served with.

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We ordered twelve dishes between the three of us, and I was so full I could hardly make my way back to the car. Two dishes per person is plenty for a light lunch, three per person if you’re feeling hungrier.

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Kavey Eats dined as a guest of Tapas Revolution.

Tapas Revolution on Urbanspoon

 

In just 20 years, American restaurant chain Chipotle Mexican Grill has grown from a single store in Denver, Colorado to a cross-country and international chain of over 1500 stores.

Founder and CEO Steve Ells spent some time in San Francisco (working at the highly respected Stars restaurant), during which he came to love the little taquerías he frequented in the city’s Mission district. These Mexican taco shops fascinated Ells; in the video on the company’s American website he explains how taken he was by the freshly-made burritos with a range of ingredients (rice, meat, beans, sauces) wrapped up inside a giant tortilla; he’d never seen anything like these before. He decided this was the kind of restaurant he wanted to open himself, using authentic ingredients and adding his own style to the setting. Of course, he also took note of the model of service in these little stores, where a small team of staff working along the length of a counter were able to serve a high volume of customers quickly and efficiently, understanding instinctively that it was a very economical way of running a restaurant.

He opened his first branch in 1993, with the second branch following less than two years later and the business has grown and grown and grown ever since. In 2010, the company came to the UK and now has 6 stores in London. (Note that only two of the six branches here currently make all the menu items at their own site, Charing Cross Road and Baker Street. The chain plans to convert the other stores to operate full kitchens in 2014)

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I was introduced to the brand early this summer, when asked if I’d like to visit Edible Ornamentals, the Bedfordshire chilli nursery who grow fresh tomatillos for Chipotle. (When they aren’t in season in the UK, Chipotle import from Spain, Netherlands, Portugal, and Mexico). Tomatillos are a key ingredient to authentic Mexican salsa but not an ingredient commonly grown in Europe, so Chipotle were very happy when Edible Ornamentals agreed they could grow and provide a UK supply. Pete and I loved visiting the nursery (and have since harvested lots of tomatillos from the pair of plants gifted to us by Joanna). Some months later, once British-grown tomatillos were finally in season and available on the Chipotle menu, we made our visit to the restaurant itself.

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Manager Anna Czigany showed me around and her enthusiasm, not just for the product but for the company as an employer, was very genuine. She is very proud that the company values staff retention, gives on-the-job training and encourages career progression. She started as “crew” three years ago; likewise, many of her colleagues have been in the company for a 2 or more years and similarly appreciate advancement opportunities. After we ate, she took me round the kitchen, explaining where and how the various menu items were made. She pointed out that because every item on the menu is made by the small team of staff that run the branch, everyone knows just how each item should taste and they are more invested in making sure everything is as it should be; it’s not just a case of serving some food but taking pride in serving food they have created.

Anna also told us about the company’s commitment to sourcing quality ingredients that are selected with the environment, animal welfare and customer health in mind. To this end, they use only Freedom Foods chicken, Farm Assured beef and Free range pork and buy vegetables and other produce from local farmers where possible.

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Another key part of the success story is in offering a limited menu and focusing on doing it well. Customers can order a burrito, burrito bowl, tacos or salad. That’s it. But they can ring the changes by choosing their fillings. They have a choice of four meat and one vegetarian mains plus a range of sides such as pinto or black beans, salsas, sour cream, guacamole, cheese, lettuce and rice. It’s perfectly OK to ask for a combination, which is especially popular when ordering the tacos, which come in threes. Speaking of the tacos, you can choose whether to have soft flour tortillas or crispy corn shells…

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We tried both the burrito and a portion of tortilla tacos (with a different filling in each), which allowed us to try all four meat options. The chicken (£6.70 regardless of which format you choose) is marinated in adobo before being grilled and diced; it had a good flavour and was deftly cooked so it wasn’t dry; it also had the advantage of being less messy than the braised beef or pork. Steak (£6.95) is treated much like the chicken and was perfectly decent. Beef Barbacoa (£6.95) is braised and then shredded to create a delicious, sloppy mess; it was very good, though rather spicy for me, being the hottest of the four. And lastly, Pork Carnitas (£6.95) is also braised and shredded and is not disimilar to the beef, but has the advantage (for me) of less chilli heat; a winner! (The vegetarian option, which we didn’t try, is also priced at £6.50 for burrito, bowl, tacos or salad).

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The burritos are enormous, by the way, so they are the best value for a quick and filling meal.

Also on the menu are tortilla chips, salsa and guacamole and a short drinks list including Margaritas (£4.35), Beer (£3.65 with Brooklyn, Modelo, Negra Modelo, Pacifico and Corona available) and a selection of soft drinks (from £1.15 to £2).

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I probably wouldn’t have thought to visit this fast food Mexican chain had I not been invited to learn more about tomatillos and how they are used in authentic Mexican Salsas. However, now that I’ve tried them, they are on my list of places I know I can grab a quick, tasty and filling meal.

By the way, I genuinely love this recent Chipotle advertising video, called The Scarecrow, I came across it via Facebook. It’s twee, yes but I still think it’s wonderful!

 

Kavey Eats dined as a guest of Chipotle Mexican Restaurant.

Chipotle Mexican Grill on Urbanspoon
Square Meal

 

For 7 months this year, I was working a contract in central Watford. Since I last worked for the same client a couple of years ago, their business has expanded quite a bit and staff are now split across three different buildings along the same road; meaning I was no longer 30 seconds away from the staff canteen in the original office building. This proved to be a good thing, as it forced me out of the office every day (and the canteen was never very good in any case).

But although the office is right by the shopping centre, Watford isn’t blessed with many decent, quick and affordable lunch options. The addition of a branch of Pret a Manger helps – I went through a a phase of rotating between their meatball wrap and bang bang chicken baguette for weeks on end. But there’s little else that appealed and it didn’t take long for me to bore of their offerings.

A few weeks in, a colleague mentioned a “great sushi place” inside the Watford Market and insisted I should go. Aware of my interest in food and relatively recent obsession with Japan, he was confident I’d like it. I put it off for a few more weeks; my memories of Watford Market were anything but positive and I couldn’t imagine finding great food within its walls. But when I finally checked it out, I was immediately hooked and visited at least twice a week every week for the rest of my contract! (Keep in mind it’s only open 3 weekdays per week…)

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Watford Market has changed over the last year or two; one end has been cleared out and space assigned to a mini-food court with three stalls – the Japanese plus an Indian and a Caribbean (which are looked over by a butcher, two fishmongers and a Turkish sweets and olives shop). The Japanese place has high stool-chairs at the counter and handful of regular tables just opposite; during the months I visited, this little business became more and more popular, and soon we made sure to head over at noon to be in with a hope of getting a seat. They are only open Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday lunch times and if you can’t get a seat, they do takeaway too from a small fridge next to the till area – the sushi selections are far tastier, more generous and much less expensive than supermarket or sandwich chain offerings.

The sign above the kitchen reads Sushi No Mai (“Sushi Dance”), which is expanded to Sushi-no-Mai Japanese Grandpa’s Sushi Takeaway Shop on their business cards.

Grandpa, in this case, is Chef N Shimo and a framed document proudly declares his recognition by Sanchokai, the Japan Sushi Association. I believe he used to be a chef at Harrods before launching his his own business here in Watford. Throughout service, he quietly mans the sushi counter, occasionally querying an order or nodding greetings to a customer. His daughter (I think) cooks and plates tempura and teriyaki orders behind him. Two or three additional staff look after customer orders, payments and service.

Not only is the food delicious, it’s also extremely good value.

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Tempura don (£5) includes two or three prawns (depending on size), two or three pieces of fish (white fish and salmon), a slice of sweet potato, a fan of aubergine, slices of sweet pepper and a seasonal green vegetable such as courgette, green beans or asparagus. A generous dressed side salad is also included.

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Pork teriyaki don (£5) comes with salad and a boiled egg and plenty of sauce. The pork is tender, fatty and full of flavour. Salmon teriyaki don is similarly good.

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A sushi and sashimi platter called Scent of Scotland (£4.80) includes four pieces of salmon nigiri sushi and four of salmon sashimi. I’ve added a sweet omelette nigiri (£1) to my order, above. The fish is super fresh.

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The Edomae Set (£5.80) is one of the best value dishes on the menu, containing several pieces of nigiri sushi (including eel, salmon, tuna, prawn and seabream) as well as four large rolls labelled as Watford sushi which include both tuna and salmon as well as a selection of crunchy vegetables. Again, a generous salad is included.

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Chirashi Sushi is a couple of pounds more expensive but includes scallop sashimi and sweet omelette as well as the other types of fish already mentioned.

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Sometimes, if feeling extra hungry, I’d add a tuna roll to my order, for less than £2 this is another bargain and, like the rest of the sushi, comes with wasabi and pickled ginger. Soy sauce is already on every table.

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The only dish I don’t rate very highly is the ramen (£5), which I shied away from anyway, given my propensity to spill food all over myself and the need to go back to work looking half-way respectable! But when I did order it, it didn’t blow me away, perhaps I’ve been spoiled by the recent openings of great ramen restaurant in central London.

Green tea and soft drinks are £1 each.

 

Please note, a few of the prices have gone up (very marginally) since my last visit.

Sushi-No-Mai, Watford Market, Charter Place.

 

I had been looking forward to dinner with friends at Kirazu for weeks.

This tiny Soho restaurant describes itself as “Japanese Tapas” – a cross-cuisine shorthand (for the small dish menu) that is guaranteed to drive my friend Mr Noodles to near apoplexy. Reviews since its launch in April seemed positive and one of our group had been before, for the ramen, and deemed it good. The handful of dishes shown on their blog looked appealing.

But although much of the food was decent, the overall experience was hugely disappointing.

Our booking for seven was allocated a space suitable for five. When we pointed this out and suggested we’d need the two neighbouring places too, the staff were very put out and insistent that this was not possible, though they could clearly see that we could not physically squeeze any more people onto our given benches. All the more surprising, given that the restaurant was not fully occupied during the entirety of our visit; neither the two extra seats we requested (and ultimately used) nor the two next to them were taken.

I’m usually pretty sympathetic to staff for whom English isn’t a first language, as long as we can communicate eventually. When they are from the country of the cuisine being served, the language issues are balanced out by their helpful familiarity with the ingredients and dishes. But at Kirazu, language barriers made the process inordinately difficult. Even asking how many dishes we might need for our group size was challenging, and I gave up after a few attempts to explain the question in different ways. Asking for information about the actual dishes was impossible. And, despite there being more than enough waiting staff for the tiny number of customers, it was far harder than it should have been to catch their attention, perhaps because each interaction with customers was an ordeal for them too.

With just one chef, service was very slow. It took a long, long time for our food to come out, and when our two late-arrivals ordered a handful more dishes, some never turned up at all, despite chasing.

But most frustrating of all were the portions. While the use of the word “tapas” does give an indication, Kirazu made the diminutive size of its dishes an art form.

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Take a look at the picture of Sautéed Lotus Roots (£2.50) from their website (on the left), alongside mine (on the right), showing the portion we were actually served. The friend who’d been to Kirazu before commented that the serving had been twice as large on his previous visit.

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Agedashi Tofu4.50) was similarly minuscule; those cubes are small! It was a decent example of the dish but by no means among the best I’ve had in London.

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Chicken Karaage (£4.50) was hot, juicy and gone in a flash.

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Grilled Conger Eel & Cucumber (£4.50) was, once again, tiny; what was there was decent.

A Seaweed Salad with Sesame Dressing (not pictured) (£4) was OK, but uninspiring. The dressing was mediocre.

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Mini Rice Bowl, topped with seared roasted pork (£6) actually made us giggle – you know the kind of giggle that’s covering up utter disbelief? At the bottom of a normal-sized bowl was an inch of rice (come on, how cheap is rice, for goodness sake?), a trickle of sauce and 4 miserly bites of pork. And the pork wasn’t even very good; I found it dry and a little bland.

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One of the best dishes we ordered was Takoyaki3.50). These batter balls with octopus inside were served freshly made, meltingly soft and piping hot such that the heat caused the generous sprinkling of bonito flakes on top to swirl and wave like living organisms. Beautiful and delicious.

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The worst dish in our selection for me was the Grilled Aubergine with Sweet Miso Sauce4.50), usually one of my favourites. A small piece of aubergine with tough skin spread with a thin layer of rather bitter miso in place of the usual sweet-savoury miso marinade that marries so well with smoky aubergine flesh. It hadn’t been grilled long enough after the miso was added either, so the miso was dull and lifeless rather than charred and bubbling.

Having ordered tea to drink, I asked for more hot water in my cafetiere once I’d emptied it. Not only is refilling tea standard practice in Japanese restaurants, the second brew is often even better than the first. I was very haughtily informed that they don’t do this, and the waitress turned away before I could respond.

We ordered the dishes I’ve described as a first round, intending to order more as the evening went. But as the dishes slowly came to the table, and we realised how tiny they were, not to mention the lack of welcome in the service, we decided to draw a line under our visit and head elsewhere for something more filling, tasty and better value. Even then, our frustration wasn’t over. Again and again and again and again we asked for the bill. When we finally received it, we were not impressed to see it hadn’t been itemised, so no way to check whether it had been collated correctly.

We paid, we left.

I won’t be back.

Kirazu on Urbanspoon
Square Meal

 

I am in the minority; I never warmed to Hakkasan, underwhelmed by all three of the holy trinity of food, service and setting. Sitting in nightclub-like gloom, eating overpriced food served by poorly trained staff just doesn’t appeal and I’ve been at a loss to understand either the Michelin star or the multitude of fans. As for Wagamama, I credit it with popularising Japanese-inspired ramen more widely across the UK, and have certainly grabbed a quick meal there on occasion, but it’s not a restaurant I seek out. "Acceptable" is the best I can say of it, though at least it’s far cheaper than Hakkasan.

So Naamyaa, also from Alan Yau, was not a restaurant I made any particular effort to visit when it launched last year. (Yauatcha remains on my list, I have always assumed I’d like it but simply never managed to visit. Busaba Eathai I hear is decent, offering authentic Thai in sleek surrounds at high prices).

Indeed, I only came to visit Naamyaa at all after a seriously misguided visit to GBK. (I know, I know, I’ve said often enough that any restaurant that needs to put ‘gourmet’, ‘fine’ or ‘ultimate’ in its name clearly isn’t; in my defence a brewery we really like wanted to celebrate making it onto the GBK drinks menu and asked us to come along). Ten minutes was all we could endure of the appallingly awful "burgers", the too-close tables and the chest-vibrating music rendered into unrecognisable thumpy white noise by too many hard surfaces and a poor quality sound system. Social media came to the rescue when we asked for recommendations within the immediate area. Naamyaa was suggested three times within the first several responses!

Naamyaa is described as a "Bangkok Cafe", (in which Thai dishes are routinely served alongside food from neighbouring countries and a few from the West) and its menu, like that of Busaba Eathai, is a collaboration between restaurateur Alan Yau and chef David Thompson. Indeed, it’s owned by the same business and positioned as a sister brand to Busaba Eathai.

Naamyaa’s look and feel is much lighter and more informal than Busaba Eathai’s, which in turn is not as dingy as Hakkasan. For me, that’s definitely a good thing.

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Stepping inside was an immediate balm after our nails-on-a-chalkboard reaction to GBK.  A colourful, luxurious interior which beautifully balanced traditional Asian design motifs with modern (but not minimalist) interior design was warm and inviting, vibrant yet relaxing. Instantly soothed, we were welcomed in and offered a choice of where to sit – in the main area or in the small, intimate space by the window. We chose a comfortable low corner sofa and coffee table flooded with light from the floor to ceiling windows.

The menu sections were a little confusing, we found. Dishes in one mains section came only with rice and those in the other section only with noodles, which felt a little prescriptive. And we didn’t spot the much-written-about Western dishes such as burgers or eggs on toast – I’ve since noticed they seem to be restricted to the breakfast and brunch menu.

Staff were ready to step in with advice about the various dishes, though once I explained my preference for mild to medium chilli heat rather than very hot, we were firmly steered away from large swathes of the menu with dire warnings about the heat levels. The specials board was also explained, though it would have been great to have printed sheets slipped into the menus as we couldn’t see the board from where we sat and it was hard to remember the full list we’d been talked through.

I’m always happy to see an appealing range of soft drinks, as these are so often after thoughts to the wines, beer, spirits and alcoholic cocktails list. My Watermelon Bangkok (£3.80) was wonderfully refreshing in the heat. Pete was happy to see Asahi beer on draft (brewed on license in the UK by Shepherd Neame) but £5.90 a pint is a little steep.

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I remember having the Jasmine Tea Smoked Ribs (£8.50) at Hakkasan. I liked them there but couldn’t detect the smoking, making them pleasant but nothing out of the ordinary compared to much cheaper local neighbourhood chinese takeaways. These were much better with a mild but clear smokiness to the flavour, wonderfully soft and tender meat and a delicious sticky sauce coating.

From the specials board, Fried Eggs with Chilli Jam (£5) were incredible. The eggs cooked perfectly so that the yolk was a viscuous pool of golden liquid, the white was set but not rubbery, with a lovely crisp "skin" from being briefly deep fried. The chilli jam was a deeply savoury mush with a welcome fishy umami  note; so intense and so good I would order it on its own.

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Naamyaa Chicken (£9.50) came with (a tiny portion of) noodles and beansprouts, and half a plain boiled egg and dragonfruit slices that seemed more for show than an integral element of the dish. Oh-my-goodness was this hot! One of the dishes our waitress deemed less hot than most of the rest, this was not only way too hot for me, it was also too hot for Pete who has a much higher chilli tolerance. A shame as we both thought it was delicious, but had to admit defeat as our mouths couldn’t take any more burning.

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Braised Tofu, Aubergine and Shimeji (£9.40) was in the Rice Set section of the menu, which meant it came with a bowl of rice and a pot of broth soup. This was the second standout dish of the meal for me. Much like a Chinese black bean dish but with far more complexity of flavour to the thick sauce, I struggled to identify what ingredients added to the richness – fish sauce, shrimp paste, something else entirely? And I absolutely loved how tofu, aubergine and mushrooms all had a lovely silkiness in common and yet each had their own texture and taste.

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My Lemongrass Panna Cotta with Fruit (£6.50) was let down for me by the fruit which wasn’t as fresh or flavoursome as it should have been, featuring underripe strawberries and tinned peaches. Next time, I’ll skip dessert and focus on the starters and mains.

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We were surprised that two out of three filter coffees (£3) listed in the menu were not available (poor stock management) but what was available was a good coffee. It took an inordinately long time coming though.

We really enjoyed our evening at Naamyaa. Although we’d have to be careful with choosing dishes given the chilli heat, we’d definitely go again. A big thank you to those who suggested it!

Naamyaa Cafe on Urbanspoon
Square Meal

 

A picture tells a thousand words, so here are a selection from a lunch we had back in May. We’d done a few hours at the allotment that morning and went back to continue our efforts once fortified by a delicious lunch at Pera Ocakbasi.

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We ordered starters of garlic mushrooms and a selection of mixed hot meze and shared a main of halep – pieces of minced lamb kebab and cubed bread in a tomato sauce. Olives, pickles and bread were served on arrival and the main came with a large side salad and an onion side dish. Nearly everything was superb, especially the mushrooms, fresh bread and kebab, with the only let down being the use of very stale oil to fry the bread pieces used in the halep.

 

Mac n cheese sushi style”?

Er… what the hell is that?

Well, for one thing, it’s a menu item guaranteed to cause sharp intake of breath amongst those convinced that classics must never be meddled with and that twists and fusions are an abomination… But I think life’s too short to be too narrow-minded and proscriptive about food so I was very intrigued by this dish and many others on the menu.

When a journalist and blogger friend tweeted that he was dining in Watford’s self-described “best restaurant”, I confess I stifled a giggle. I’m actually a big fan of Watford but in my (not exhaustive) experience, much of the culinary landscape consists of boring chains, ranging from the awful through to the mediocre and acceptable but seldom showcasing greatness. The independents aren’t a great deal better on the whole, though there are exceptions such as the gem that is Grandpa’s Sushi in Watford Market (review soon) and Taste of Lahore on the High Street.

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Details soon emerged and I was even more surprised to learn that my friend was talking about Rodell’s, just a minute’s walk from my previous office and maybe 2 or 3 from my current one. Not surprised because I’d been there myself or because I’d heard anything about it (good or bad) but because I didn’t even realise it was a restaurant!

It turns out that Rodell’s has had quite a varied history: Back in the 1960’s, two business partners named their new haberdashery shop by combining their family names, Rodriguez and Martell. José Rodriguez was current owner Mario Tavares’ uncle and the property passed to Mario via his mother who took over in the 1970s. She diversified Rodell’s into a general corner shop to sell groceries, cigarettes and confectionery. Her daughter, Mario’s sister, helped evolve the business again by introducing sandwiches and catering for local offices.

In 2004 it was Mario’s turn. After an exciting and successful career spanning both performance and production of music, TV, arts and digital animation, Mario wanted to focus instead on his love of great food and cooking, especially the many cuisines he’d picked up travelling the world for work and pleasure.

Mario converted Rodell’s into an organic deli, serving breakfast and lunch to the local area. His simple no-menu approach was ahead of its time — think how popular no-choice menus have become today, both in underground restaurants and commercial ones. With the lack of menus and signs in the window, and it being closed when I passed by early morning and at the end of the working day, I had no inkling that the shop was actually a hive of activity during the day!

However, as many business owners found, the recession started to bite and in 2009 Mario closed shop. It was not until 2011 that he re-launched, this time as a bar and restaurant, with the intention of creating a vibrant and friendly community hub.

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Downstairs, a bar sits to one side of the small room, exposed brick and wooden floors creating a warm inviting little space. Particularly popular are the two draft taps, not for beer but for Prosecco! Mario was one of the first in the UK to install these.

Staff are friendly and the three we chatted to during the evening clearly share our love for great food and drink.

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Upstairs are two dining rooms, also simply styled. Pale wooden tables and walls make the most of the light flooding in from huge windows. A mix of old and modern furnishings and knick knacks give a touch of homeliness. Mario’s favourite films are projected onto one wall – Hairspray and Pink Panther during our meal. Also playing is a music tape, quite unrelated to the films, which makes for some surreal moments.

Mario explains that he’s not a trained chef but has learned from many different sources and in many different places. His menu is essentially a very eclectic and constantly changing mix of sharing plates and he is not constrained by notions of what goes with what. Instead he makes what he likes to cook and eat, confident that others will too.

A born host, Mario tells us how he wants his customers to help him shape what Rodell’s is to them. In return, customers quickly become regulars; some from just around the corner and some from further afield.

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He’s one of those genuine happy people it’s impossible not to warm to immediately. His giggle actually is infectious, clichéd though that may sound.

A childhood in the Philippines meant he learned to love great food at a young age. Since then he’s lived and travelled all around the world and found more delicousness in each place.

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So, what about the food?

I can see how some might be alarmed by the way the menu meanders right around the world from dish to dish. Surely Malaysian should be served with Malaysian, Chinese with Chinese, Spanish with Spanish? Bah humbug to that suggestion – I relish the eccentric menu and am happy to trot the globe with my palate.

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Savoury bread and butter pudding (£4.50) is served with a small cup of thin soup. The soup is OK but the pudding is magnificent – imagine crispy light layered puff pastry top and bottom, around a melting savoury cheesy custard interior, with a little pesto slathered on top. Yeah!

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Dry spicy Cajun ribs (£8) are so big I wonder if they come from a dino-pig. The quality of the pork is evident as they are tender, tasty and with a beautiful thick layer of fat. The cajun spice rub has a kick!

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Fritto misto (£6) is the weakest dish, for me. I’m just not convinced that it works with such tiny pieces of seafood and I definitely don’t like mussels served this way, though I like them in other recipes. I’d also suggest serving it with aioli alongside, such as the one served with the chicken.

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Spanish pollo ajillo (£6) (garlic chicken) wings are served piping hot, superbly tender and juicy on the inside with a crisp exterior; perfect dipped in the aioli provided.

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Lemon prosecco risotto (£6) divides us. We both agree it has great flavour, but I find it far too dry and stodgy. Pete likes it but I much prefer a looser, more liquid risotto.

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Malay beef rending (£8) is fantastic! It has a superb balance of flavours, the meat is as soft as you could hope for and the heat is enough to make itself known but not so hot it masks the rest. My only comment would be that for £8 the portion is small given that no rice or bread comes alongside. A flaky roti canai would go down a treat and make it better value too.

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And finally I want to tell you about that mac n cheese sushi style (£8). Macaroni tubes are neatly (dare I say obsessively?) arranged and glued together by a cheese sauce, then breadcrumbed, fried and served in slices that resemble rolled sushi. To my surprise, the cheese sauce is liquidy soft and melting – I can’t imagine how the slices don’t disintegrate into a slop on the plate! I often hear people claiming that there is nothing new under the sun and that any real twist to a classic worth trying has been tried already. This dish proves them wrong because it’s bloody genius and even if I hadn’t fallen for any other dish I’d go back for this alone.

You can see we ordered seven dishes between us but five or six would have been plenty, as we started hungry but finished so full we could hardly roll ourselves back down the stairs.

As well as the prosecco there’s a nice range of fairly priced soft and alcoholic drinks. And Mario’s just converted some outside space into a little drinking and eating deck, perfect in the current heatwave.

What do you think, abomination or genius? Or do you need to try it for yourself to decide?

 

Kavey Eats were guests of Rodell’s.

 

This Easter I ran a competition to win a Bettys chocolate badger and was overwhelmed by the popularity of the giveaway! I loved reading the responses to my entry question of which woodland animal people wanted to see similarly immortalised in chocolate. Following the competition, I arranged with Kelly Young (Engagement Manager for Bettys) for Pete and I to pay them a visit on the way back from our holiday in Islay.

After overnighting with friends in beautiful Kirby Malham (and visiting their newly acquired farm shop in Airton) we made our way through beautiful countryside to Bettys attractive HQ near central Harrogate.

As I explained in that previous post, Bettys is a family business founded back in 1919 by a young Swiss man, Frederick Belmont. Today, the business is still run by his descendants and they have kept alive strong links to the country of his birth. Indeed current chairman Lesley Wild ensures that several Swiss-inspired recipes are offered on the menus in the Cafe Tea Rooms as well as a selection of Swiss wines. These sit comfortably side by side with the many local Yorkshire specialities that Bettys is also known for.

HQ is situated in a spacious, purpose-built estate in Plumpton Park with several Swiss-chalet inspired low-rise buildings. Even the parking areas impressed me, with pretty trees giving shade to most spaces and gardeners busily tending the green spaces when we arrived.

Signed in, we quickly donned our white coats and attractive hair nets (see below) before setting off on a genuinely fascinating tour of the bakery; it’s here that they make the baked goods sold in Bettys’ six Cafe Tea Rooms and online shop.

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To my surprise, virtually everything is made just like it would be in a home kitchen (but on a bigger scale). Aside from a couple of larger-than-usual stand mixers, cakes are iced and decorated, biscuit dough is rolled and cut, pastries are filled and assembled, bread is shaped into loaves, macarons are piped … by hand. Indeed, the two machines they use to cut shortbread biscuits into even flat circles and mille feuille pastry into perfect rectangles, are a rare contrast to the rest of the bakery’s old school methods.

Mostly we just watched, listening to Peter Hartley – one of the bakery managers – explain the various sections and methods used, but I was delighted to have a go at foil-wrapping a large chocolate coin wearing the special gloves used to achieve a smooth and lustrous finish.

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The bakery isn’t averse to modern technology where it’s useful and doesn’t compromise the product, such as their vast ovens with rotating racks inside, but I couldn’t help but fall for the modern-build old-design wood-fired oven in which they bake traditional breads.

After the bakery tour, we thought our agenda had us taking a quick peek around the Bettys Cookery School, located on the same site. With no courses scheduled on a Monday, we knew there wouldn’t be much going on.

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But to our surprise and delight, Kelly had secretly arranged for senior tutor Lisa Bennison to run a private class just for us, to give us a taster of the cookery school in action.

Lisa taught us two dishes during our class: Zuri-Geschnetzeltes and Spätzle (often written as spaetzle in languages without the umlaut). The first is thinly sliced veal in a sauce of mushrooms, cream, white and onions and the second is little egg noodles shaped by pushing a thick batter into boiling water through small holes – Bettys use a specialist pan. In this recipe, the freshly boiled spaetzle were fried in butter before serving.

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We loved Lisa’s enthusiastic, humorous but tip-packed teaching style and there were plenty of giggles to go round as Pete mixed batter, boiled and fried his spaetzle under Lisa’s watchful eye. The proof was in the tasting and the whole dish tasted very good indeed.

You can find the Bettys cookery school recipes for Zuri-Geschnetzeltes and Spätzle here.

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image courtesy of Bettys

After our wonderful class in the cookery school, Kelly had one more treat in store for us – lunch at the nearest Bettys Cafe Tea Rooms in central Harrogate. The interior is spacious and beautiful, full of gorgeous original features. There’s a cafe on the ground floor and the slightly more formal Montpellier downstairs.

Although many fellow diners were enjoying an early afternoon tea, we all chose from the delicious menu of savoury dishes, many with a strong Swiss influence.

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Pete’s Original Yorkshire Rarebit was made with mature Cheddar, Worcestershire sauce and Yorkshire ale. Swimming in cheese, it was a rich and heavy dish, but tasty.

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My Swiss Rosti was topped with chicken and cheese. It was a delicious combination of caramelised potatoes on the surface and soft, almost steamed potatoes in the centre.

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Kelly went for a beautifully summery pea and spinach ravioli which looked very attractive on the plate and certainly earned smiles of appreciation as she ate.

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Afterwards, we enjoyed desserts from the cake trolley. Beautiful!

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Last, a quick dash around the shop for me to buy some sweet treats to bring home and we finally made our way back to London, regretful that Bettys local ethos makes it unlikely that we’ll see a branch open near us anytime soon.

Coming next, a competition to win some Bettys deliciousness for yourself…

 

Kavey Eats was a guest of Bettys bakery, cookery school and cafe tea room.

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