Tuesday, 19 June 2018

The Counter at Sabor

Sabor (which appropriately means 'flavour' in Spanish) has only been open for a few short months and is already making waves; at the recent Estrella Damm National Restaurant Awards it was named second best restaurant in the UK behind Kiln, with co-founder Nieves Barragán Mohacho winning Chef's Chef of the Year.

The unassuming entrance is marked by classic Spanish tiles — including a rather lovely 'Calle de Heddon' street sign — and the inevitable queue. Spanish food fans and tapas addicts, I'm happy to report that the hype is real.

To be fair, Sabor's founders know a thing or two about running a restaurant; Barragán Mohacho was Executive Chef at Barrafina for ten years, during which time she won them a Michelin star, with co-founder and customer experience king José Etura as Operations Director.

Sabor is divided into three separate and distinct sections: a classic, L-shaped tapas counter focusing on fresh fish and dishes from the Basque country and Catalonia, the Asador upstairs (which takes reservations and is wonderful for celebrations and group dining) showcasing specialities from the regions of Galicia and Castile and a small bar area downstairs with a selection of wines, spirits, beers and sherries from across Spain.

We started with Pan Tomate and Cecina, the vibrant freshness of tomatoes balancing delicate slices of intensely-flavoured, dry-cured smoked beef. This typifies Sabor's ethos, with high-quality traditional ingredients leading the way.

Some of you out there may well already know that I am quietly but incurably obsessed with certain foods, croquetas being in my top three.  Even given this, the Prawn Croquetas did not disappoint; they were perfect, with a deeply-flavoured, rich, comfortingly creamy centre and a crisp, golden shell.

(I don't really have a sweet tooth, so in times of heartbreak and despair I think I would head here for endless plates of these rather than finish off a tub of Ben & Jerry's on the sofa. Each to their own - and you have been warned.)

Next were the Piquillo Croquetas, which on my visit were topped with a snowfall of grated Zamorano cheese; I think on the updated menu it is now Manchego. Again, these were delicious, with a light but definite kick and perfectly cooked.

Frit Mariner was a sunshiny plate of tender squid and shelled prawns with aubergine and red pepper, drizzled in a herby olive oil dressing that made me long for a piece of bread to greedily wipe the plate clean.

The Beetroot, Blood Orange and Dill was simple and simply delicious, the earthiness of the beetroot balanced with the citrus and dressing, making for a pretty and refreshing dish.

The Chargrilled Baby Potatoes & Sobrasada was the only dish that I wouldn't rush to order again; the texture was quite uniform and I didn't get much of the promised chargrilled flavour, although to be fair by now the bar had been set pretty high.

Our Rhubarb and Mascarpone Tartaleta was delightful and an excellent end to our evening; delicately crisp pastry and with a filling that allowed the inherent sharpness of the rhubarb to come through, but softened by the mascarpone.

We went for a bottle of the Bhilar white Rioja 2016 on the advice of our charming server Pablo; it was a good match and I will be adding it to my wish list next time I am wine shopping.
I also couldn't resist the theatre of a glass of Txakoli, a young, citrussy, slightly effervescent wine best poured from height to maximise the flavour.

I'm already planning a trip back for the other two areas of the restaurant, the Asador and the bar; my wish list from the bar menu includes the Lardo, Anchovies & Picos, the Camarones Fritos & Fried Egg and the Queso Fresco & Black Truffle. (Actually I might just move in, I could happily eat that for breakfast.)

Yours, savouring the flavour,
London Girl About Town xx

Saturday, 20 January 2018

Rachel Whiteread at Tate Britain

My first recollection of seeing Whiteread's work was Embankment 2005, a commission for the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern inspired by an old cardboard box found in her mother's basement when she was clearing the house after her death. The box was worn, sagging and faded, scarred with tape marks and well used over the years for children's toys, Christmas decorations and a range of ordinary but pivotal family possessions. Whiteread cast thousands of boxes in polyethylene and stacked them throughout the Turbine Hall, in columns and in irregular piles; seen from above it looked like a giant sugar bowl. The boxes seemed anonymously identical and yet, close up, the casting process had captured every tiny dent and crease from the original. I found it both visually impressive and unexpectedly poignant.

Tate Britain is currently hosting the largest exhibition of her work to date, including new work Chicken Shed 2017 on the lawn outside and Untitled (One Hundred Spaces) 1995 in the Duveen Galleries as you enter. The latter is a series of casts of the underneath of chairs — the most humble, anonymous and overlooked of spaces — in jewel-like coloured resin. This concept of unoccupied space, making it something rather than just an absence, is a thought-provoking one and is found in the work of another of my favourite artists, Antony Gormley.

Rachel Whiteread was the first woman to win the Turner Prize and is probably most widely known for House 1993. The artist took a condemned Victorian terraced house in the East End within sight of Canary Wharf, touchingly domestic and utterly ordinary - and cast the entire building in concrete. It drew admiring crowds and public criticism in equal measure before being controversially demolished after just 80 days. Whiteread was present at the demolition and subsequently fell ill for several months.

Familiar domestic architecture and artefacts figure largely in the exhibition. Untitled (Stairs) 2001 is a cast of the stairs from her home and studio, previously a synagogue and then a textile warehouse, capturing the signs of wear and tear from generations of daily use.

Found objects, often ugly and unwanted items, also take centre stage in her work alongside homely, intimate objects such as these hot water bottle sculptures, disconcertingly titled Torsos.

I really liked these library bookshelves which I found familiar and comforting (I love a library) but then chillingly reminiscent of Whiteread's Holocaust memorial in Vienna, which features regimented rows of books with their spines turned inwards - unwritten books by murdered would-be authors.

Whiteread has long been interested in dolls' houses, starting a collection after she left college that would eventually number around 150 and be used to create Place, now on permanent exhibition at the V&A Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green. This cast version is intriguing; its symmetry and emptiness give it grace and simplicity. People still peer in to view the interior but there is no furniture, no posed dolls, no tiny plated meals or pictures on the walls - just architecture and space.

I won't give any more of the exhibition away (as I strongly recommend you go for yourself) but I'm going to finish with my favourite piece, largely due to the story behind it. This is Untitled (Room 101) 2003, a plasticised plaster cast of the room in Broadcasting House where George Orwell worked during his time at the BBC and reputed to be the inspiration for Room 101 in his iconic novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. This inversion of empty space gives it a solidity and blankness that is utterly perfect, as well as revealing the tiny cracks and irregularities that are inevitable when people create, and live or work in, an environment. It couldn't be more fitting.

Yours, looking at the everyday in a whole new way,
London Girl About Town xx

Sunday, 29 October 2017


Just to set the scene for you (pun entirely intended), I was recently treated to an unexpected evening at the theatre - Tennessee Williams's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, intense and absorbing with the immediacy that only live theatre can bring, with great performances from an arch, determined Sienna Miller as Maggie and a brooding Jack O'Connell as Brick, radiating torment and despair.

You say theatre, I say pre-theatre supper: something bookable, fabulous but speedy, satisfying, yet light enough not to put you in a food coma before the curtain comes up and no more than a five-minute stroll from the action.

Enter, stage left: Kricket, emerging from the chrysalis of a Brixton shipping container pop-up into a Soho bricks-and-mortar butterfly, newly awarded a Michelin Bib Gourmand. It's been a big year for  co-founders and college friends Will Bowlby and Rik Campbell and I wouldn't be at all surprised to see them add another Kricket site sometime next year. After my meal here, let's hope so.

Kricket serves Mumbai-inspired modern Indian small plates in a buzzy, industrial-chic setting along with some innovative cocktails (don't miss these when you visit). There are two floors; if you are in a party of four or more, you can book at the communal tables downstairs (useful for pre-theatre when time is tight) or you can grab a seat at the upstairs counter and watch the chefs at work. Apart from being a stellar first date option this is always my preference, as I find it endlessly fascinating — and here, a rare opportunity for Indian cuisine.

We started with smoked aubergine served with sesame raita and papdi gathia, light, crisp Gujarati snacks made from gram flour. I think charring/smoking brings out the flavour of aubergine really well and this moreish dip was a perfect example. My cocktail, Lucky Neem, was a blend of oriental spiced gin, lime, cucumber and curry leaf, welcomingly sharp and elegantly presented.

The tandoori monkfish with coconut chutney was an absolute standout of a dish; firm, beautifully spiced without being eye-wateringly spicy, with the chutney a soothing counterpoint. It's refreshing to see a superb dish simply plated with no unnecessary extras — no tricksy garnishes or endless cast of flavours, no tarting it up to make it 'Instagram-worthy' — just really, really good food.

Kricket's lasooni scallop with Goan sausage, poha (flattened rice) and seaweed was also outstanding. Yielding, sweet and enhanced rather than overpowered by the contrasting flavours and textures, I could have eaten a plateful. We also ordered the cultured butter naan, freshly made, light and generously buttery, and a side of fluffy tomato pilau to go with — both good calls.

Pumpkin with makhani sauce, fresh paneer, hazelnut crumble and puffed wild rice was warming and mellow, with a good depth of flavour; again, a lovely use of textures and perfect with the tomato pilau.

Another dish I will definitely order on my next visit — proper KFC, Keralan fried chicken, served with pickled mooli and a creamy curry leaf mayo. This dish was unexpectedly large in relation to the others and would comfortably serve two, I think — although you may want to have a plan in place if there is one odd-numbered piece left at the end, as that would be totally legitimate grounds for dumping someone.

Yours, in full agreement with 10cc (oh come on, I waited until now!),
London Girl About Town xx

Sunday, 22 October 2017


Rambla is a Catalan tapas restaurant in the heart of Soho, named after Barcelona's famous street near which chef-patron Victor Garvey grew up.

Newly opened at the time of writing, Rambla is set over two floors and is a more ambitious project than Garvey's previous solo restaurants, Encant (formerly Duende) and Sibarita. From my visits - one evening and one lunchtime - and from a spot of people-watching the other customers, he's absolutely nailed it.

The menu is mercifully brief but varied, tempting and very reasonably priced. On both visits we ate until we could barely move, shared a very drinkable bottle of light and fruity red (a 2015 Honoro Vera Organic Monastrell) and paid around £30 per person, including tip.

As we were deciding, the waitress arrived with some sourdough toast and a pestle and mortar, proceeding to make alioli (correct spelling in context for those fellow grammar nazis out there, from the Catalan for 'garlic and oil') at our table. There is a buzzy but very relaxed vibe here; tapas is inherently a chilled and sociable way of eating and this is backed up by charming and attentive staff, good use of space and a very cool choice of music.

We officially started with spinach croquetas with roasted pine nut alioli. Considering these are priced at £4, I was expecting two per portion; we actually got four, which is exceptional value. Regular readers will know that I have a slight obsession with croquetas; for tapas restaurants, I believe they are a pretty reliable benchmark of the kitchen. These were very good indeed. Piping hot from the pass, with an impossibly thin, crispy coating yielding to a smooth, creamy, comforting interior, they had exactly the textures and flavours I was after and were as good as any I've had from tapas bars in the chef's native Barcelona.

Next, another of my favourites, pan con tomate - deceptively simple and simply delicious.

'Butifarra Negre' sliders were served wth a refreshing green apple slaw and nevat cheese in toasted brioche buns. Nevat is a delicate, creamy goat's cheese from the Catalan mountains which appears in another dish here, baked, with beautifully presented crudités. Here it is a welcome support act for the real star — butifarra negre, classic Catalan blood sausage, intense, dark and spicy. The slider is an inspired vehicle for this, especially topped with the crisp, sharp apple slaw.

The grilled octopus with pickled garlic and alioli was perfectly tender, with lovely charring and depth of flavour. This is one of the first dishes I order when in Spain (after the croquetas) and, just for a moment, the grey skies and windy streets of London disappeared and I was sitting with the sun on my skin.

We had hoped to try the lamb chops at our lunchtime visit but they were unavailable; chef Victor Garvey explained that he'd had double the expected number of covers the previous evening and was waiting for a delivery (it arrived later, as we were gently slipping into a food coma) so I'm just going to have to go back again to try them. Shame. It's a good job Rambla takes reservations, as I have a feeling this place is going to become a Soho staple.

The wonderfully rich braised oxtail canelones with nevat cheese (there it is again) — shown here with a portion served to show you how generously packed with hearty shredded oxtail they are — could well be my go-to dish this autumn. It is remarkable value at only a fiver, and with a glass of wine to cut through the intensity and a beloved paperback to keep me company, that'll be me perched at the counter, sorted.

Plump mussels and clams steamed in white wine with Serrano ham and spider crab butter came with slices of toasted garlic sourdough for dipping and for mopping the juices from the bowl. This is hands-on food, tapas as it should be.

My absolute favourite, though, was the quail drumsticks, wrapped in crisp pancetta and presented in a nest around a  Pansals wine-based dipping sauce served in an eggshell. This is a visually beautiful dish and absolutely delicious; prepare for your Instagram feed to be featuring this regularly over the coming months.

For dessert, we went for the warm apricot and almond coulant with homemade frozen yoghurt. I've only ever had chocolate versions of this dessert before, which I find too rich after a spoonful or two, so this was a welcome surprise; light almond sponge with a melting apricot fondant centre, balanced beautifully by the frozen yoghurt and crunchy flaked almonds.

Rambla is a very welcome addition to Dean Street and already holding its own against some formidable competition. Equally suited to swift but fabulous pre-theatre dining and long, boozy lunches with friends, affordable and offering the option to book a table, it could well become a regular haunt.

Yours, wishing you 'bon profit',
London Girl About Town xx

Sunday, 24 September 2017

Too Many Chefs 2017, Drapers Arms

Hosted by Temper's Neil Rankin and by Nick Gibson at his Islington pub/restaurant The Drapers Arms, Too Many Chefs is back this year with another incredible line-up of top chefs. All of the proceeds from the ticket sales (plus half from the drinks spend on the night) are donated directly to Action Against Hunger, making it a truly unmissable event; I may not be a sponsored 10k run kind of a girl, but I can marathon eat with the best of them.

As an unexpected bonus I also managed to catch up with freelance chef James Wilson who is now starting his own business; provisionally called Angel and the Bear, it will provide private dining events and pop-ups with dishes like his 'Savoury 99' - a cone stuffed with sticky beef cheek, topped with beer ice cream and salted crunchy shallots. I will be keeping my eye on that one for you.

The menu for the evening was extraordinary: ten dishes from ten top culinary talents, with some intriguing offerings. Guests were welcomed with a cocktail made from British aperitif Kamm & Sons  to prepare us for the feast; I'll do my best to talk you through it but prepare for some serious meal envy.

Max Halley: Max's Sandwich Shop
A Little Crisp Bread Sarnie: cold roast English rose veal, tonnato sauce, shoestring fries, anchovies, oregano & boiled egg

I confess I had never eaten vitello tonnato before this; somehow, the marriage of tuna and cold veal seemed a rather unappealing one. I get it now; delicate rose veal, egg, creamy tuna sauce, the tang of anchovies - and here, the contrasting textures of crisp and yielding. There was a lot going on in just a couple of bites and the balance was impressive.

Gina Hopkins: The Drapers Arms
Spiced & pickled cauliflower, caraway yoghurt, coriander & mint

A brief aside: by the time the meal was about two courses in, we were chatting with the two couples at our end of the table like old friends. Food, particularly on sharing platters, will do that - along with the undeniable fact that people who like both good food and helping others are likely to be fabulous company. (As indeed they were - thanks again for the banter, feedback and of course the champagne!). I mention this because I put everyone in 'our group' on the spot and asked them to pick their top two or three dishes at the end of the evening.

After much agonising we all narrowed them down (there wasn't a single dish that wasn't somebody's favourite) and this dish was a top contender. The contrast of the warm cauliflower with gentle curry spices and the little cold, sharp, pickled florets was lovely, with the dressing complementing both. I would happily eat a big plate of this as a vegetarian main - and if it is on the menu when I go to the Drapers Arms in its normal guise, I fully intend to.

Elizabeth Haigh (née Allen): Shibui
Pickled potato, clam, smoked mussels, caviar & Sichuan oil

Shibui is Kaizen House's first restaurant concept, due to open Jan/Feb 2018. I went to a pop-up preview of Shibui at Carousel (see my blog from early this year) and can't wait for the permanent venue. This was a characteristically elegant and thoughtful dish with carefully balanced powerful flavours, accomplished and delicious.

Dan Doherty: Duck & Waffle/Sprout
Foie gras custard doughnut

Another contender for dish of the evening, this had it all; beautifully cooked golden doughnut, the most delicate foie gras centre, sweet glaze and what we originally thought was a sprinkling of blitzed salty popcorn but turned out to be the lightest possible pork crackling bits that just melted in your mouth. This was intriguing, technically brilliant and an absolute winner.
Rob Sachdev: The Quality Chop House
Diver caught scallop, BBQ peach, roast chicken

The roast chicken element of the dish was provided by wafers of crispy chicken skin, giving lovely textural and flavour contrast to the sweetness of the scallops The stand-out aspect, though, was the barbecued peaches, which were absolutely delicious and had everybody talking about how we could steal the idea.

Damian Clisby: Petersham Nursery
Cod, mussel & saffron broth, fennel & ginger

This very beautiful broth arrived in a huge dish (that's a serving spoon & fork, for perspective) with an entire side of cod underneath the mussels and peppery edible nasturtiums. It was temple food at its finest - summery, light, yet full of flavour. We had to force ourselves not to finish it, as we were only just halfway through the meal; I really hope I can track this recipe down, as I would love to serve this for a summer lunch with friends.

Rory Shannon: Winemakers Deptford
Mutton faggot, farro, mutton ham & rosehip jelly

We were given a tiny gap before the meat dishes came out, for which we were all grateful. A whoop from the other table heralded these beauties; hefty mutton faggots, topped with a delicious salty mutton ham, served on a bed of farro and greens, like an Irish stew on crack. Intensely meaty and rich, these were accompanied by a little jar of light rosehip jelly to cut through. We were all flagging a little and couldn't do these justice; next year I'm sneaking in a load of Tupperware for leftovers. Give me an autumnal walk in the park, an open fire and a plate of these and I would be sorted.

Ben Chapman: Kiln
Phetchaburi guinea fowl jungle curry

Traditional Thai jungle curry is made with wild meats and packs a punch spice-wise as it doesn't have the coconut milk element to tone it down. This was a classic version, fresh and fiery - a little too much for some of the guests but we found ourselves going back repeatedly for yet another tiny forkful. I love my spice (and lived abroad for a while, so have trained my tastebuds) so was a real fan of this one. I'm heading to Kiln very soon to try out some more of Ben's dishes.

Chantelle Nicholson: Tredwell's
Pear tarte tatin with miso & muscavado ice cream

A certain member of the group (yes Clemence, I'm looking at you!) had been pacing herself throughout the entire evening for this and it didn't disappoint. The tarte tatin was perfect: crispy, chewy, caramelised pastry and pears with just the right amount of give, served with an umami-sweet ice cream, this was wonderful.

Neil Rankin: Temper
Honey kouign amann & Stichelton

Yes, I admit it, I was kind of expecting Neil Rankin to have done a meat course, so this was a surprise. Unfortunately I have an intolerance to honey and so couldn't try this, which was pretty torturous given the reactions of those who could - basically, borderline When Harry Met Sally. I'm assuming it was pretty damn good. I feel a rematch at Temper is required!
Nick Gibson summed the evening up perfectly on his Instagram with this lovely picture and the comment, 'Ten stellar talents. Many well-fed people. All for Action Against Hunger. We choose love.'

All I can add is my heartfelt thanks to him, Neil Rankin and the other amazing chefs here for organising such a wonderful event; if you're looking for a definition of 'win-win' I think you've found it.

Yours, feasting and feeding others,
London Girl About Town xx