Category Archives: eating out

russian honey cake

russian honey cake

“Russian tea room”. I’m not sure about you but that phrase conjures no images whatsoever in my mind. When Helen mentioned that she’d scored us a table at Knightsbridge’s Mari Vanna, I had no idea what to expect.

Skirting around Hyde Park I missed it a couple of times. The decor confused me: from the outside I thought it was a florist, and on the inside your Nan’s house. There is a frightening amount of knick-knacks, gewgaws and tat littering every surface. Photos adorn the walls (which we were informed are all staff member family snaps), preserves are rammed into a cupboard, the day’s pastries line the counters.

Bamboozled by choice, we kinda throw a dart into the menu and went for a couple of random platters: the “men’s tea”; and the more classic Russian high tea, whatever that might be. It was a great time to be in there: packed with Olympic tourists, the variety of dialects buzzing back and forth afforded us a great deal of people-watching. After spending a few minutes supping beer and Georgian tea, chatting about the fictional “Mari Vanna” with our host, and admiring the dozen or so doorbells out front, our food arrives.

men's tea at mari vannaThe platter in front of me is various kinds of salamis, smoked cheese and black olives. The salamis were perfectly pleasant but nothing surprising, Helen found them too strong. The smoked cheese again was perfectly good but nothing to set the pulse racing. That said, I am sucker for almost anything served on a wooden board. The tuft of dill was welcome, and the fragrance was obvious in much of the food that came past our table.

russian high tea at mari vannaThe high tea however was much more interesting: your typical Savoy-style tower of silver dotted with pretty things. There were caviar-topped blinis, for which I was de-virginised of caviar, pirogis that put me in mind of soft and spiced meat samosas, slices of delicate white fish and beetroot alternating with cream cheese…

But the desserts are where it was at: the set milk pudding had Helen and I debating for quite a while how the texture was achieved (whipped egg white folded through milk and set in a bain marie, we guesstimated), although a rather average chocolate cake was ignored. However by a million miles the star of the show was a sweet and caramel-laced honey cake. Goodness how we cooed and ooed and aahed over it’s dozen layers of squidgy sponge and whisper-light cream. It is a staple of Russian houses come Christmas time, and it’s not hard to see why. It was nothing short of brilliant, and I resolved to have at it myself.

I managed to find a decent sounding recipe here, which I’ve bashed about a bit for my own purposes. And the resultant cake, while not the gossamer-fine thing of beauty from Mari Vanna, was still a homely and squidgy teatime treat. I’d aim to get that dough baked thinner next time, and try to really slice it as thin as I can for maximum moistness. I had a really pleasant time at Mari Vanna – particularly this cake – but watch those prices, as Jay Rayner observed.

Thanks to Helen for the invitation.

Russian honey cake (makes a cake about 20cm x 10cm):

For the dough:

3 large eggs

A big pinch of vanilla salt

220g caster sugar

70g butter

60g honey

2 teaspoons bicarbonate of soda

550g flour

For the cream:

700ml double cream

300ml creme fraiche

180g caster sugar

A generous tablespoon of honey

To finish:

A Crunchie bar (optional)

  1. Preheat the oven to 170°C. Line a large baking tray with greaseproof paper, then give that a little extra grease. Melt together the butter and honey until fluid and then turn off the heat.
  2. Whisk together the eggs, salt and sugar until pale and fluffy. Gradually whisk in the honey butter a trickle at a time, and then sift in the bicarb and flour. Stir until combined to a dough – this will be quite firm, more like a biscuit dough than a cake batter. Using wet hands press this mixture in to your baking tray, as thin as you can. Bake for around 8 – 10 mins, until the it is golden on top and a skewer inserted comes out clean. Peel off the paper and leave to cool.
  3. While it cools make the cream. Whip the cream and sugar until soft but still a touch runny, then incorporate the creme fraiche and keep beating until it just holds its shape. When it’s ready loosely ripple through the honey.
  4. When cool, slice the cake into long thirds. Then proceed to cut in half horizontally, by placing your hand on top and slicing across with your sharpest bread knife. You want a thickness of about 5mm. Save the offcuts for later.
  5. Alternately sandwich cake and cream to make a giddy tower. Be generous with the cream as it is going to get absorbed by the sponge. Smooth some more cream over the top and sides of the cake and leave to set in the fridge for about 12 hours.
  6. Before serving, whizz up the cake offcuts with a Crunchie bar in a food processor and sprinkle over the top. If you have some spare cream, serving that on the side wouldn’t go amiss :-).
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chicken tikka balti

Image courtesy of Su-lin (http://tamarindandthyme.wordpress.com/)

Despite all the recipes listed here like many other people I am a sucker for a takeaway curry. When I lived with my Mum and Dad creeping back home on a Saturday night my evening was made that much better by discovering a plate of leftovers in the microwave.

I’m well aware most Indian folk wouldn’t recognize the food served up at the ‘traditional’ British curry house but I’ve been eating this stuff for most of my life, and whatever culture they derive from I really enjoy “an Indian”. I’m especially a sucker for spiced Tandoori meat, a rich gravy, a crispy onion bhaji and a fluffy, chewy naan.

I was invited to try out Just-Eat.co.uk, an online takeaway ordering service. It’s not just Indians, but Chinese, pizza, kebabs… the usual takeaway suspects. The site is cleanly laid out and dead easy to use. One downside for me is the range of places to choose from is pretty poor, with 11 Indian restaurants and a couple of others. This will vary throughout the country of course but it’s not a massive selection for me. Luckily in this case the one I wanted was there, the Spice Hut. I’ve been using this place for about 6 years and they’re very consistent and I love the food there. By picking a takeaway I’m very familiar with I can review the service as opposed to the food, as I know what to expect. We even had a paper menu to help us all order at the same time.

And the paper menu pointed to another issue: they offer more on the real menu than they do online. There’s a whole section called “Spice Hut Specialities” which Mrs. Spud really wanted to order from, so had to change her order which was a little disappointing. Everything else was there so we ordered our usuals, including their excellent chicken tikka balti. I was then stung by another little niggle: a 40p credit card charge. Surprise charges like this may not be much but they really annoy me, as I could’ve gone direct to the shop and avoided that.

That said, the whole ordering and checkout process was swift and painless, and I even played with the mobile version of their site on my terribly old Android phone and it worked great. I ordered a delivery as a treat (I always collect) and it arrived in 20 mins instead of the prescribed 45 mins, which is a bonus. We ate loads and enjoyed the feast, which was up to their usual high standards.

The site works just great and you can pay with cash on delivery if you prefer, which is a nice touch. I might use Just Eat again if I was in an area where I didn’t know the restaurants – as I knew the place in this case I was aware of the items I was missing and would’ve missed out the (admittedly tiny) charge.

morrisons café, maldon

morrisons, maldon

Imagine my glee when Mrs Roastpotato texted to tell me she’d managed to secure a reservation for the hottest ticket in town: Morrisons Café in Maldon. We’ve been on the phone every day for weeks trying to get in, but it was always engaged, or when we did finally manage to get through it was fully booked.

It’s one of those swanky places with an obscure entrance: you walk through a supermarket, past busy shoppers, and then you glance out of the corner of your eye a queue of old people smelling faintly of wee. This is how the other half live, you think. You join the exclusive line and make your choices. It’s no ordinary menu-waiter style establishment, but instead you walk past a grand plaque pictorially displaying today’s epicurean delights. There was no hesitation for me, I’d heard wonderful tales of the delicate spicing and exotic ingredients used in their curry by Laissez Fare and BapSHOUT so that was my meal decided. Meanwhile Mrs Roastpotato went for le petit déjeuner d’anglais complet. The maitre’d (I think her name was Sharon) was effortless, taking my order without a word. Literally. Order placed, we took our plastic seats among the busy tables. This was definitely the place to be, it was heaving.

First up was the amuse bouche, a ’round’ of toast (it wasn’t round at all, it was square – so witty!) marinated in butter. This was tasty though a little damp, and flecked with black. I might attempt this one at home myself. While waiting for our mains, I took in our surroundings. I was gazed upon by a kindly old man, reinforcing the genuine and friendly nature of the warm decor.

lovely old man

Not a moment too soon, our plates arrived. The gimmick here is they are more thrown at you – I think it’s an Olympic discus thing ready for 2012 – landing in front of you with a tremendous clatter. Such theatre! Equally fascinating is having to choose the cutlery yourself from a selection of different stainless steel instruments. I think they were trying to catch out the naifs by leaving out all different shaped and sized forks. Luckily I’m experienced in such matters and was able to choose appropriate silverware for my dish.

chicken tikka masala a la morrison

And there it is, the chicken tikka masala. I could hardly wait. Vibrant and orange, I knew I was in for a treat. I wasn’t disappointed. Thick without being creamy, lightly spiced while simultaneously not tasting of much at all. It takes some skill to achieve that blend of flavours. The meat was stringy and unyielding, equally raised to perfection. Accompanied by skillfully steamed rice (essence of microwave perhaps?) and a naan resembling a pillow (because you will need to sleep after this feast), this was a perfect example of how to reheat a curry in the authentic supermarket way.

Would I go again? Yes.

5,000 stars out of 10

essex food fair

cressing temple barn

I’ve recently found a pocket of Essex-based foodies into which I have aggressively thrust myself, and being a persistent little oik has paid dividends. The wonderful EssexGourmet (@essexgourmet on Twitter) tweeted on Thursday that there was a food fair happening on Saturday in Braintree. After a moment’s thought LittleSpud and I decided to take a trip out into the heart of green Essex. And what a wonderful afternoon it was!

hog in a rollSituated in the Cressing Temple site, you couldn’t ask for a more picturesque and homely setting for a local event. There were plenty of stalls with a wide variety of craft and produce available. There were characterful jams and chutneys sold in attractive jute bags; pies of all distinction; cheeses of all provenance; meat and fish alive alive-o. The highlights for me were thankfully quite numerous. First to catch my eye was the hog-in-a-roll; the whole pig barbecued in the background while a genial chap shovels shredded pork into a floury bun and slides a wedge of stuffing in the side. Really meaty and the chew of crackling really makes a joyful crisp in the mouth. I also grinned at the scallops cooked to order with a pile of homemade pesto on the side. The smell was utterly intoxicating. Another fine memory was seeing a flourishing and nourishing Indian snack stall; after passing through rows of bangers and pies this feels incongruous, but how many of us don’t now consider Indian cuisine very much part of our own? Sharing a spicy samosa, my son and I certainly weren’t fussed about any feelings of whether it fitted or not.

double chocolate cupcake - with a strawberryI also sampled some turkey sausages which were absolutely out of this world, unfortunately I was very nearly broke by this point to investigate further! I was also happy to see a game stall; only that morning I’d seen a pigeon recipe and was tickled by the sight of pigeon burgers. I splurged on some venison steaks, a treat for some helpful in-laws. I am also a complete sucker for a gorgeous cupcake, moist of crumb and swirly of gritty buttercream. See this glorious example picture, which I had to sit down to savour.

My only slight criticisms were being a lack of a real direction so it was easy to miss some stands; also that there was not enough room to move around the main barn. Also quite puzzling was a distinct lack of beef – I found one beef farmer who was very knowledgeable and sold good stock, but his selection was small. Where are all the bovinophiles?

All quibbles aside, I will definitely be back next year – I will look for it in the calendar. It’s so nice to rub shoulders with the people who rear the produce, and hand-make everything. You can feel – and taste – the love.

(From this adventure, my purchases made pork belly confit and braised beef brisket. Ta!)

jamie’s italian (brighton)

Being a Jamie Oliver nerd, I’d been waiting for the opportunity to try one of his restaurants. Being a fellow Essex boy I’m constantly disappointed that there isn’t one of his places in this great county. When Jamie, when? I’ll work there for free!

I do however make regular trips to Brighton, so knew the next time I would be sampling Jamie’s Italian. They don’t accept bookings so the four of us (3 adults + 1 child) rocked up in anticipation around 5pm and got seated quickly. I even asked to sit at a banquette to give us plenty of room and this was no bother at all.

My first impressions were of an American diner – quite chunky and glitzy. Jazzy murals of trainers and mirrors adorn the walls, meanwhile you can see right into the kitchen through a glass partition. The waiters have a pretty area, with butler sinks and rustic dressers to store their stuff. It’s pretty massive as well, not that they were short of covers!

kids' menuThough the little one with us was sure to eat an adult’s portion, I asked for a child’s menu anyway because I’d heard they were unique. Indeed they are – 80s Viewmasters! Though the pictures are cute bafflingly there are no descriptions on any of them, so you’ve no idea what’s being ordered. The menus themselves are large and full of cheeky Jamie-isms as you might expect.

queen olives over ice with music breadImmediately we ordered olives, being a firm favourite of my family. Described as ‘best olives’, that was certainly an apt description. Rich, plump green beauties with a meaty, almost parmesan-y tones. Set over ice and accompanied by ‘music bread’ – whatever that is – and olive tapenade, these truly were the best olives. Incredible.

meat antipastoFollowing from that we had a plate of meat antipasto and veg antipasto between the four of us. Antipasto always gets me giddy, I love courses where you can pick and nibble at different bits and pieces. These were an absolute triumph, laid on breadboards set atop two upturned tins of tomatoes. Wafer thin San Daniele ham, salty prosciutto, chewy mortadella… the meats alone were of the highest quality. Yet another fat olive and curiously plump capers finished this section off. There’s a cheese in the middle I can’t recall, but reminded me of manchego with membrillo. There was a tangy side dish of pickled carrot and beetroot which was just the right counterpoint. To leave the best til last, the mozzarella was the finest we had ever tasted. A paper-thin crust held a ball of soft creamy cheese that oozed in the mouth. Utter heaven. On the veg side there were some pleasing mixed mediterranean bits – courgette, artichoke etc – that were also delicious.

soft-shell crabsWe then had an array of mains: lamb lollipops acheived that great combination of fun and tasty, with an array of dips; sweet potato lasagne that was warm and soothing; bolognese proclaimed to be “the best ever”; while I went for soft-shell crab. These were writhing great monsters, apologies for the dodgy pic but I was in a hurry to devour them.  They were sweet and crispy and tasty, a real treat. If I had one complaint, it would be that there’s almost too much of it – even with my massive appetite I had out-crabbed myself – there were two whole crabs to nibble! In all the mains were incredibly satisfying, especially when paired with wilted greens and balsamic chickpeas.

For dessert we barely managed a bakewell, orange tart and range of sorbets. All were marvellous, the bakewell almondy and jammy, the orange tart thick and citrussy.

It was a superb meal – the best I’ve eaten this year and one of my favourite meals ever. Now when’s the Essex branch opening?!

burger

I had the most sublime fast-food experience in New York: it was a burger.

As a devotee of Heston Blumenthal, I owed to myself to check out a bizarre little place where he had the best burger in the world. Nestled in an upmarket hotel was a greasy little burger shack without a name.
I entered the hotel and immediately felt out of place: opulence, grandeur and marvel. Marble floors, leather chaises longues, martinis served on platters by penguin waiters. But I knew the burger was here – I could smell it!
I darted through the lobby following my nose. Then to one side, between two innocent curtains, I glimpsed a neon outline of a burger. Down this corridor was a boxy little greasehouse, wood-panelled walls, red PVC banquettes, and loud rock music. What struck me was the chaos. Cardboard, hand-written signs were plastered around the serving area-cum-grill, urging that you get your order ready or face queuing up a second time.
I ordered two burgers with “the works” (lettuce, tomato, onion, sliced pickles, mustard, ketchup, mayo) and gave my name, while we were offered a cosy booth amid the heaving crowd. What struck me were the different people: suits, designer wear, builders, tourists… all here to grab a burger, and god knows how they’d found the place. The walls were also covered in scribbles, with notables such as Chuck Liddell, Joss Stone and Hiro from Heroes.
A minute later my name is barked (all burgers are cooked to order and to desired doneness) so I push through and grab my waxpaper-wrapped treats. I can’t wait to sit down and try it, so after some feverish unwrapping I take my first bite. It’s the texture that gets me, all loose and moist. But the flavours are then running through my mouth; savoury and salty. For what has become the ultimate symbol in garbage food, this was high dining indeed.

cheesecake

I had a truly awful meal at the legendary Lindy’s, opposite Madison Square Garden. Overpriced, pathetic and overwrought.

I had an open turkey sandwich, which consisted of two stale slices of white bread, piled with sandwich turkey, covered in packet gravy. Served with instant mash. Gross.
And their “world famous cheesecake” – which I went for – was distinctly average and grainy. I have many better ones, I’ve had better ones in the same month. Very disappointing.
Also – NYC restaurants close at 10.30pm as a rule – wassupwitdat?