Thursday, 22 December 2016


Fans of London’s street food scene – and let’s face it, who isn’t? – will already be familiar with Smokestak from Street Feast Dalston Yard (now at Dinerama) and the legendary beef brisket buns with pickled red chillies.

Well, David Carter has come in out of the cold and opened a bricks-and-mortar version off Brick Lane on Sclater Street E1. I would say that you can't miss it, but we watched many a perplexed punter wander past the forbidding Game of Thrones-esque door and only return once they had failed to find anything more welcoming. If you get lost, just follow your nose.

The doors set the scene for the brooding industrial interior  - smoky concrete walls, exposed pipes and towering windows, this is about as masculine as a restaurant can get. Everything about it is big, solid and no-nonsense, either wood, steel, or matt black, and the focus of it all is the huge four and a half tonne smoker brought over from Houston.

That said, the general vibe is really warm and relaxed - unusual in such a new restaurant (it had only been open ten days when we went). The staff were charming, friendly and just attentive enough, never rushing us but always busy. Carter himself was the still centre of the storm, stationed calmly at the bar with his laptop, advising chefs and front of house staff as and when needed.

We were waiting for stragglers at our table (yep, you know who you are . . . ) so we early birds ordered a couple of cocktails and a cheeky little starter to keep us going. We opted for the smoked girolles on beef dripping toast which turned out to be a phenomenally good call; robust, punchy, with real depth of flavour, this set the scene for the rest of the meal. Do NOT miss this. You can thank me later.

The cocktails were pretty good too; I had the Smoke (rude not to, really, given the theme) with tequila, smoke, lime and ginger, and my companion had the Burnt Peach Old Fashioned, a great take on the classic with bourbon, burnt peach, warm spices and bitters. 

The boys arrived and we went for a bottle of the recommended red wine and the 40ft pale ale. To go with, we ordered scratchings; this turned out to be huge light-as-air swirls of crispy skin, a great appetiser for what was to come.

I lived in Texas for a couple of years (yeah, it's a long story) and this was a return to the larger than life barbecue fare I remember - and then some. Texans love their beef, and take their barbecues very seriously. Politics? Sport? Religion? Tackle a Texan about what kind of wood chips to use, what spices to include in the rub or how long is long enough and you could find yourself at the wrong end of the second amendment.

For mains, we had the beef brisket, which I was happy to see arrive with a sprinkling of the pickled red chillies on the side, and the pork ribs with pickled cucumber. The beef was exceptional; meltingly tender and perfectly seasoned even without the barbecue sauce, and great with the zing of the chillies.

The thick-cut pork ribs were also really good; chunky, succulent and delicious.

Opinion was more divided on the sides: the roasted carrots got a universal thumbs up, same for the wonderfully fresh and crisp celery, almond and preserved lemon slaw, which was so much more than a sum of its parts.
The grilled baby gem lettuce with bacon and walnut gremolata was okay, but I felt its flavours were fighting with the meat mains, which was a contest it was never going to win. The jacket potato with sour cream and chive was the troublemaker; three of us, myself included, loved it but one of us wasn't a fan of the texture - a smooth, almost pureed potato and sour cream mix in a crispy skin.

I'm sad I didn't get to try the salt-baked beetroot . . . next time!

So gluttonously on to puddings. We tried the sticky toffee pudding, which was judged to be everything one would want from the dish, and I was hoping to try the toasted oak ice cream with salted hazelnut praline but unfortunately they were out of the ice cream so I had to have the burnt butter ice cream instead. This was good, but now I have yet another reason to go back . . .

Yours, addicted to smoking,

Girl About Town xx

Square Meal

Smokestak Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Saturday, 17 December 2016

Dumpling Shack pop-up

So I managed to grab a couple of places at John Li's Dumpling Shack pop-up event in Leicester Square last weekend - no mean feat, considering that his last pop-up venture with Shotgun sold out within hours.

Dumpling Shack has been resident in the School Yard at Broadway market since 2014 and John Li has built a steadily increasing reputation and fan base for his fresh, handmade dumplings amongst some very stiff competition. This pop-up brought his street eats inside and central, at Leicester House in Soho.

The table was set with some roasted peanuts and a sizeable bowl of zingy smacked cucumbers (surprisingly easy to make at home btw if you are serving a spicy Sichuan main) for a fresh, palate-cleansing start.

First to arrive was a salad with lily bulb, celery and jellyfish. I can't recall having had lily bulb as a key ingredient before but it was interesting, with a texture and flavour not unlike a mild version of roasted chestnuts.
This and the toasted sesame dressing went well with the crisp celery and the classic delicacy of very finely-sliced jellyfish, looking almost like glass noodles.

Then came the star of the show, the dumplings. Note that these are sheng jian bao, pan-fried soup dumplings, which have a completely different texture to the xiao long bao Shanghai soup dumplings popular in dim sum restaurants. These are more robust in texture, the exterior almost like a thinner version of the fluffy char siu bao bbq pork bun; and they needed to be, as the fillings were substantial - and amazing.

The signature pork and water chestnut filling was tender, juicy and deftly seasoned; the shiitake, woodear and leek provided a veggie option that had great depth of flavour, but for me the crab and truffle option was one of the highlights of the evening and had me chasing tiny shreds of filling around the plate with my chopsticks out of pure greed. They were as good as I had heard - a beautifully crisp, browned base, not too doughy and piping hot. One word of warning though - when I say hot, I really do mean hot - please don't be tempted to pop a whole one in your mouth as soon as they are served, as the result will not be pretty.

These were followed by the long bean fritters with smoked tofu mayonnaise. These were not so much actual fritters as long bean tempura, with the lightest of batter coatings and a fabulous gently spicy chilli kick, balanced by the creamy smokiness of the mayo.

Next up were the barbecued duck heart skewers; beautifully and simply presented, tender nuggets of meat with robust bbq flavours.

Potatoes in spicy red bean sauce arrived next; again the spice factor is mild, more warming than eye-watering, with the starchy sweetness of the red beans providing a comforting backdrop to the dish.

We were seriously starting to flag when the next dish arrived at our table, the signature spicy cumin lamb chops with pickled radish. However, these were everything you might hope they would be: juicy, crisp, perfectly seasoned melt-in-the-mouth heaven. Definitely one of the stand-out dishes of the evening.

Scallops in XO sauce came next. I lived in Hong Kong for a couple of years and XO sauce was a staple seasoning, a seafood-based umami high. These were good but not outstanding . . . although in fairness we were both ridiculously full and still going on about the lamb chops.

The final dish arrived, a vegetable dish of kai lan served with crushed peanuts. I had a mouthful or two and confirmed that yes, I absolutely would order it again as a side if I hadn't already eaten my own body weight in dumplings and associated fabulousness.

Rumour has it that this pop-up is in preparation for a bricks-and-mortar version of Dumpling Shack planned for 2017. For what it's worth, my vote is a resounding YES PLEASE.

Yours, still daydreaming about dumplings,

Girl About Town xx

Monday, 28 November 2016

Gatecrasher review: La Mar, Buenos Aires

Ok, here's an experiment; normally this blog does what it says on the tin and gives you the heads up/low down on what's happening in and around London. However, at this precise moment I am sitting on a terrace overlooking the pool in a gorgeous zen hideaway just outside of Buenos Aires in Argentina after a wonderful dinner last night and I have decided to go off-piste and blog a non-London restaurant. So, here is the very first 'gatecrasher' review - La Mar, a Peruvian cebichería in the Palermo district of the city of Buenos Aires.

La Mar was probably the hottest new restaurant opening last year and it is still buzzing. There were doubts that a restaurant focusing on fish and seafood would last once the novelty had worn off but it is clearly still the place to be and be seen; we were guests of some very chic and well-connected Argentinian ladies so were shown straight to one of the coveted outdoor tables, right next to the bar.

We started off with a bottle of red while we looked through the menu, which arrived with a bowl of sweet potato crisps accompanied by two dipping sauces, one mild and one gently spicy. There isn't an English menu but the wait staff are very helpful. One of our companions ordered for us, which worked very well; it was a real treat to sit back and have dish after wonderful dish arrive magically at the table. The first was Causas Barranco - prawns with avocado on a shaped and seasoned mashed potato base, a traditional Peruvian starter. (Potatoes are the major crop of the Andes, region, with over 3,000 different varieties growing in Peru and the surrounding areas.)

Next to arrive was - I think - a Ceviche Mixto and a Clásico, fish and seafood of the day in the fabulously-named leche de tigre, literally 'tiger's milk'. This is the marinade that the ceviche has been steeped in, a mixture of lime juice, garlic, fresh coriander, chillies and red onion, often served in a shot glass alongside. 

The wontons that arrived next were particularly good - light and crisp, packed with a juicy seafood filling and served with a tamarind dip.

The Quinoa Caprese salad was not the most obvious accompaniment somehow, but was really good; excellent creamy burrata which contrasted well with the freshness and chilli-citrussy sharpness of the ceviche.

To finish we had a traditional Peruvian dessert, a Suspiro Limeño (literally, 'sigh of Lima'); this is a caramel-type base not dissimilar to Argentina's famous dulce de leche (but slightly less dense) topped with meringue made with port. It is still very sweet - we shared one between four so we could all have a taste and were happy with that!

The bar in the courtyard is very cool; we stuck to the red wine and so didn't get round to trying the pisco cocktails, but if you go, try the chilcano and tell me what it's like. 

Yours, loving the outdoor dining in November,

Girl About Town xx

Sunday, 30 October 2016

Abstract Expressionism at the RA

 When I have mentioned to friends and colleagues that I went to this exhibition, I have generally been met with a kind of rabbit-in-the-headlights look somewhere between fear and bafflement. If you're not familiar with contemporary art it might sound a bit highbrow but please, PLEASE don't let that put you off; you absolutely do not need to be any kind of expert to go and to enjoy it (exhibit A, my good self). Perhaps more than any other kind of art, it is all about feeling, not knowing. However, if some kind of definition helps . . .

What is Abstract Expressionism (or Ab Ex to its friends)? Well, if we agree that abstract art is generally art that is not 'representative' - i.e. is not a 'representation', or copy, of something in the outside world - and that expressionism is about expressing your thoughts, feelings and ideas - then I guess a reasonable working definition would be that Abstract Expressionists aim to communicate something from the artist's inner world without necessarily using anything in the external world to do this. (Apologies to all the art historians out there who are currently doing a very good impression of Munch's Scream, but hey, it works for me.)

Actually, there are those who would argue that Abstract Expressionism is not a movement or group at all - primarily, most of the artists within it. Rothko famously stated, 'I am not an abstractionist. I'm not interested in relationships of colour or form or anything else. I'm interested only in expressing basic human emotions: tragedy, ecstasy, doom and so on'. The paintings don't really share a particular style; in fact, the canvasses are so full of spontaneity and individuality that apparently the CIA covertly funded Abstract Expressionist exhibitions during the Cold War as an act of propaganda, to lure intellectuals and artists away from Communism by comparing the freedom of these deeply subjective works with the the rigid confines limiting creativity under Soviet rules.

However, the term has stuck as a useful way of referring to a group of artists working in New York in the 1940s and 50s. This period just after the Second World War was, as you might expect, a time of freedom and release, of great explosive energy and creativity, of jazz and Jack Kerouac. One of the comments I found most interesting on the audio guide was about Jackson Pollock and the physical act of creating the works, sometimes called 'gesture' or 'action' painting; it did not just involve the wrist and hand, like traditional painting, but the whole arm - even the whole body; expansive, sweeping movements, requiring a completely different energy and control. Also, suddenly the artist was not standing still in front of a vertical canvas but moving around above a horizontal one; in Blue Poles, paint was dropped from up to two feet above the canvas.

Another common factor you will notice is the scale of the canvasses. Pollock was commissioned to paint Mural for the entrance hall of Peggy Guggenheim's Manhattan townhouse; this was his largest canvas to date and was followed by both Rothko and Gorky producing their largest works the following year. The temptation when viewing it is to stand back and look at the whole painting from a distance, but it was always meant to be seen up close, in a relatively confined space compared to a gallery. Viewing it like this you both appreciate the detail and feel almost engulfed by it, drawn into the energy.

At the heart of the exhibition, in the Central room, are the Rothkos. I will always have a special place in my heart for Rothko and these gorgeous, hypnotic, melancholy paintings; years ago, being taken to the Seagram Murals room in the Tate Modern was a revelatory experience for me and sparked my love of contemporary art. For me, in this exhibition, it was No 15 (Dark Greens on Blue with Green Band) 1957 that drew me in and kept me standing there; somehow, once you stop trying to rationalise them, they connect with you in a way I can't explain but which fascinates me. Luminous, intense and captivating, no print or photograph will ever be able to do them justice.

One of the unexpected gifts of this exhibition was the work of Clyfford Still, an artist I wasn't familiar with before this. In my defence, Still rejected the commercialism of the art world (a pet hate of Rothko's too) and moved to a farm in Maryland, selling hardly any of his paintings; 95% of his work is in a museum dedicated to him in Denver, Colorado and this is one of the few times they have loaned it out. I'm very glad they did, as they are powerful and striking pieces, again designed to actively involve the viewer.

So, even if you think you're not into abstract art, go to this exhibition. Go on your own so you don't have to react in any particular way, and go with an open mind. Don't worry about understanding them, don't try to define what they are about, or of; just stand, look and wait.

Yours, enthralled all over again,

London Girl About Town xx

Saturday, 15 October 2016

Pollen Street Social

I had a huge treat recently - an invitation to Pollen Street Social for a fellow foodie's birthday celebration. This was my first visit to Jason Atherton's flagship restaurant, which famously was awarded a Michelin star within six months of opening, and it more than lived up to expectations.

The tables are simply laid with white linen and country-chic design tableware in a buzzy dining room area with contemporary art from the likes of Gavin Turk. The overall effect is relaxed and welcoming, making it a perfect choice for anyone who might feel intimidated by the idea of Michelin-starred dining - or for a casual but wonderful birthday dinner.

Once greeted and seated, we had this very welcome selection of amuse-gueule, a literal taste of things to come: smoked salmon, sweetcorn muffins and my absolute favourite, crisp and delicate little beetroot and blackberry tartlets, full of contrasting flavours and perfectly balanced.

For starters we had the Wye Valley asparagus with native lobster and shellfish hollandaise, and the Eyemouth crab salad with apple, coriander, lemon purée and black garlic, and brown crab on toast. Gorgeously plated and precisely balanced, this was an outstanding dish.

Central to Pollen Street Social's ethos is a commitment to sourcing top quality seasonal produce from British suppliers; exhibit A, the Wye Valley asparagus.

Mushroom tea, served from a very elegant and covetable white tea set, was next up; earthy yet delicate and a great transition into the main course.

Again, a near-impossible choice for our mains; I opted for the Cornish lamb loin with braised neck and roasted artichoke, served with a salad of crisp baby vegetables, merguez sausage and curds and whey. I can't help but think that this was a good call. The combination of the two cuts and cooking methods of lamb was really interesting, with the beautifully rare, springy loin contrasting with the deeper, soft braised meat, cut through by the sharpness of the salad. It was again one of the most beautifully plated dishes I have seen.

My companion chose the South Coast Dover sole, which was served with Cornish fish soup poured over at the table and an Orkney sea scallop on the side. If I hadn't been feeling quite so smug about the lamb, a serious case of meal envy would have ensued. 

I've never quite understood why the portions always look comparatively small in top restaurants, yet you leave feeling perfectly full. It could be that there is another little tasty something brought to you at every feasible opportunity - this one being pre-dessert and a perfect basil and foamed yoghurt ice.

I don't really have a sweet tooth but you can't really go to Pollen Street Social without having dessert, courtesy of Leo Maple and the crew. Chocolate heaven comes in the form of the bitter chocolate pave with chocolate ice cream, olive biscuit and olive oil conserve.

And just when you think you've seen it all . . . along comes the banana soufflé with the wonderfully retro rum and raisin ice cream and lime. It looks spectacular and tastes even better.

We briefly debated ordering a coffee somewhere else on the way home but decided we were way too comfortable; yet another good call, as it turned out. Not only is the coffee fabulous - single estate from El Salvador - but it comes with 'mignardises', which in this case turned out to be an array of yummy extras including chocolate ganache, Turkish delight beautifully presented in an antique tin and a Bakewell tart, still gently warm from the oven. 

Wandering around downstairs on my way to the ladies' I stumbled (did I mention the awesome house white?) across this slightly Lord of the Flies glass-sided meat locker; quite a lot of the prep takes place at bars in the dining area so you can see the masters at work.

I don't know why, but this is my favourite shot of the evening; a bit blurry, rushed, but for me - a glimpse of where the magic happens.

Yours, Michelin-star struck,

Girl About Town xx