Luxury on a Plate with Halibut from the Fish Society.
I love halibut – a firm, white fish that is seldom available in my local supermarket or even from the Farmers’ Market that I visit every Saturday. The largest flatfish in the world, halibut has a delicate sweet flavour, firm flaky meat and a minimum of bones. With just 111 calories per 100g and 1.6g of fat, halibut is great for those of us trying to watch our weight – though perhaps not paired, as I have in this recipe for halibut with champagne cream sauce and asparagus. It also contains high levels of selenium (great for those of us with a thyroid problem) and is a good source of B vitamins. Cooked with care, it tastes wonderful and has a firmer flakier texture than cod or haddock.
When The Fish Society asked me to pick some fish and make a recipe or two, I spotted the halibut fillet steaks on their website. In fact, they have eight different options if you are interested in cooking with halibut – the fillet steaks are the perfect choice in my view for a luxurious dinner for two, while options like a whole halibut would make a wonderful centrepiece for a celebratory meal or a rather grand dinner party. My first experience of ordering fish from The Fish Society, I love the range of options for each type of fish – it makes it easy to choose whether to be decadent or frugal. Well, I’m going for decadent with this recipe for halibut with champagne cream sauce and asparagus.
One of the best things about The Fish Society is that your order will arrive frozen and nicely portioned (depending on what you order). My order also included some rather rare black cod which will be next on the list for me to cook with. For now, though that is safely popped into the freezer waiting for a special occasion.
I’m totally sold on this particular recipe. The champagne cream sauce is a lovely light and frothy base for both the asparagus and for the halibut. I’ve made the sauce a few times now and experimented a bit with champagne, prosecco and leftover chardonnay (one of the grapes that goes into champagne). I’d suggest if you want to be a little frugal or don’t have any leftover champagne (well, honestly, who does?) that an unoaked chardonnay makes a good substitute that works rather better than prosecco. The frothy nature of the sauce is from whisking it with a hand blender just before serving, not from the bubbles in the wine! If asparagus isn’t in season I think this would work well with French beans too. And, I’ve served mine with Jersey Royals which are also in season.
Without further ado, here’s how to make my recipe for halibut with asparagus and champagne cream sauce
Halibut with Champagne Cream Sauce and Asparagus
A simple, seasonal recipe for halibut with a luxurious cream sauce and seasonal green asparagus
2 fillets Halibut – each around 200g
1 tbsp Unsalted butter
125 ml Champagne
200 g Green Asparagus
1 sprig Fresh Tarragon
75 ml Double Cream
1 tbsp Olive Oil
1 Banana Shallot (finely chopped)
Heat half the butter in a small sauce pan and gently soften the chopped shallot until it is translucent.
Add the champagne and tarragon and bring to a gentle simmer.
Reduce the mixture by 50% – this will take 15 minutes or so
Meanwhile trim the asparagus, if necessary peeling the woody parts of the stems
Bring a pan of salted water to the boil and add the asparagus. Cook for 5-7 minutes until tender then drain and keep warm
Dry the halibut fillets with kitchen paper, then season with salt and pepper
Heat the oil in a skillet until just smoking. Add the halibut, skin side down and reduce the heat to medium
Cook for 3 to 4 minutes until the halibut is just opaque through and the skin is crispy and golden. Leave the fish in the pan. cover and put to one side while you finish the sauce
Remove the tarragon from the sauce and add the cream. Warm through gently.
Whisk with an electric stick blender till all the shallots are blended and the sauce is slightly foaming. Taste and adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper. Add lemon juice and whisk again.
Toss the drained asparagus in the remaining butter
Put a pool of sauce on each plate, then lay out the asparagus spears. Put the fish onto of the asparagus and garnish with cayenne pepper and a sprig of tarragon or a slice of lemon.
Serve with new potatoes
A delicious and luxurious fish dish which makes the best use of seasonal asparagus. Out of season, substitute French beans.
This is the kind of dish you’ll make over and over again. You could substitute the halibut for turbot, cod or hake and you can definitely make the cream sauce with white wine rather than champagne. If there are just two of you for dinner, I’d suggest that opening the champagne to cook is a great excuse to finish the bottle later. If, like me, you’ve always used the excuse that it’s hard to source this kind of fish, well, you no longer have an excuse. The Fish Society can supply you with everything from Halibut for this recipe to Scallops, Red Prawns or Black Cod. I’ve certainly bookmarked their website – it’s a fabulous resource to have online.
Ever since reading Lampedusa’s The Leopard in my twenties I have wanted to be an Italian aristocrat of noble lineage. However, the Count of San Bonifacio got there first and his family line can be traced back for over 1000 years whereas mine goes back to a chip shop in Oldham in 1953.
The Count and his British Contessa bought a large acreage of Tuscan land in 2002 near to where he grew up and just 90 minutes away from Pisa Airport. The original idea was to convert a house that stood in ruins on the site into a family holiday home, however on realising that they would not have enough time to enjoy to the property the couple planted nine hectares of organic vineyards and in 2010 opened the renovated property as the Conti di San Bonifacio boutique wine resort and hotel with just seven exclusive rooms.
I was travelling from Florence, a two-hour drive, and once off the autostrada, we traversed forests gradually heading to higher ground. The last section of the journey is off-road and there was a sense of relief on seeing the sign for the resort as it felt as if we were in the middle of nowhere, even though the beach is only 20 minutes away as is the local town of Grosseto.
The building is stunning and makes wonderful use of reclaimed wood and stone to create an organic and natural atmosphere. There is an air of relaxed comfort about the place and a certain quirkiness with animal skulls and other found objects turning up in unlikely places.
The light-toned stylish interiors were designed by the Contessa – who doubles as a high-powered banker in her spare time. The same ethos spreads to the bedrooms which make wonderful use of wood.
You are guaranteed a great night’s sleep as the bedrooms are incredibly peaceful whilst being equipped with all the modern comforts. With super-comfortable beds and great linen, it has a rough-hewn sense of luxury.
The bathrooms continue the same rustic theme with animal skins on the floor and Ortigia toiletries adding that luxe touch.
And then it was time for lunch – a charming rustic salad softly dressed with the estate’s own gentle and clean tasting olive oil and herbs from the garden. Whilst eating we could take in the life-affirming views of the Tuscan hills and the vineyards where their award-winning organic wines are grown.
On the estate they make a local appellation entitled Monteregio and two super Tuscans. Dining is informal – there is a dining room with an outdoor terrace or if you are in the mood you can eat next to the pool with its stunning location.
If you’re staying at the resort there is plenty to keep you occupied. As well as a range of treatments you can do courses such as ‘A day in the life of a winemaker’, and the hotel can arrange an almost endless list of outdoor pursuits including hunting, fishing, sailing, canoeing and biking…
However, I was really happy to walk around the estate and take in the landscape. Climbing up the hills opened up some wonderful vistas and I was able to have a poke around the winery.
After an enervating G&T and a floral glass of Pinot Grigio Conti di San Bonifacio overlooking the Tuscan plain, it was time for dinner.
And of course at Conti di San Bonifacio dinner means wine. Our first tasting was of the Monteregio 2015 reserve 14%, an easy-drinking medium-bodied red bursting with raspberry flavours. At 85% Sangiovese blended small amounts of Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah it was a perfect match for the starters. My Ravioli Maremmani was beautifully executed – the pasta had a proper al dente bite and the delicate organic ricotta and spinach stuffing was slathered with a gentle butter and sage dressing.
With a deep pink hue, Beetroot Risotto with goat and sheep cheese fondue contrasted the slight crunch of the rice with the softness of the small chunks of beetroot and the unctuous melted cheese.
The first of two super-Tuscans was the Docet 2013. With its name meaning Teach Me this 50% Cabernet Sauvignon 50% Cabernet Franc blend is unusual for a Tuscan wine as is its deliciously herbal flavour, It went beautifully with my crisply-seared fillet of sea bream from the Argentario coast. The fish had a wonderful flavour and came with celeriac, broccoli and crunchy sweet and sour onions.
Cinta Senese pork fillet with mustard was served with steamed artichokes and plums and a sauce made from the Monteregio wine. The pork was a little too dry for me, but the sticky, sweet sauce was lovely. The second of the two super-Tuscans was named Sustinet 2012 meaning Sustain Me. The grape was 100% Shiraz with white pepper and fruits of the forest flavours – perfect with the pork.
For dessert, a ricotta cheesecake with honey and seasonal fruit consommé was a light delight and given a luscious caramel note by the paired red Vin Santo, Occhio di Pernice, Focarile, 2004.
Pannacotta and Amaretto with matching rum pralines were subtly flavoured with the pannacotta having just the right amount of wobble and it came paired with the bittersweet almond, orange and peppercorn flavours of an Amaretto sour cocktail.
After a blissful night’s sleep, it was time for breakfast, served with delicious coffee and freshly pressed orange juice. As well as a sumptuous selection of cereals, pastries, breads, juices, fruit, jams, cold meats and cheese you could even choose a rustic Tuscan ‘Full English’ with eggs, bacon, toast, mushrooms and tomatoes – but after the..
Challenging the Marylebone Food Scene – Twist Kitchen Review.
What happens when a couple meet through work, fall in love and decide to follow their passion and set up their own restaurant? In the case of Twist Kitchen, a quirky independent restaurant in Marylebone, the result is one I’d urge you to try for yourself. But then, with the kitchen in the hands of Michelin trained Eduardo Tuccillo and front of house managed by his wife, Giulia Isola (ex Caprice), there’s a good chance things will work out well. With 2AA rosette stars, you are assured of a certain quality of food, but my own experience goes well beyond that rating. The busy restaurant, which spreads over the ground floor and basement, is a testament to the popularity of this five-year-old outfit.
Naples born Eduardo has created a menu of tapas dishes and Josper grills. Giulia advised that two or three tapas dishes per person were about right, but carnivores will want to keep space for the ‘Jospar-Bone for Two’ – a massive chunk of grass-fed, well-aged beef from Walter Rose and Sons. More of that later.
Twist Kitchen is a smooth operation. There’s an open kitchen to the rear of the restaurant and somehow a plethora of beautiful dishes appear seamlessly. We started by nibbling on a plate of Instagram perfect Padron peppers carefully scattered with fleur de sel. Here, I have to point out, the salt really matters. Fleur de sel is that fine crystalline flakey stuff that appears at the top of natural salt pans – it has a delicate melting taste, nothing like the stuff you might normally buy to cook with.
Pickled boquerones (anchovies) from Cantabrico sea came with an Amalfi lemon stuffing are a delicacy that in Spain and Italy are as important as Iberico ham. Reputedly the best anchovies in the world, here they were served with a delicate herb oil. Delicious.
A dish of Japanese scallops topped with Mazara red prawns, tiny rolls of lightly pickled cucumber and a liquorice wafer was another beautiful dish. The colour of the prawns isn’t entirely true in my photo, they are a deep red and are yet another Italian delicacy, this time from Sicily. These are the only prawns certified as ‘Friends of the Sea’ – ethical and sustainably harvested.
We went on to enjoy one of the specials, ora king salmon, New Zealand salmon which is known as the Wagyu of fish, with a garnish of Oscietra caviar, soya truffle dressing and seaweed. A beautiful and delicate cut of fish.
Then octopus with black garlic, cauliflower and Pata Negra lard.
My own choice from the fish menu was the Brixham cod which appeared as a large loin, on a bed of shaved fennel in a miso and bergamot broth with what I think was puffed rice. Perfectly cooked this was another dish where the quality of the ingredients sang.
Fried courgette flowers stuffed with ricotta, mint, Amalfi lemon and honey were utterly delicious. I know from experience how hard it is to source courgette flowers in London – they don’t stay fresh for more than a day or so and so this popular Italian dish is rare over here. A lovely treat to have such a taste of Italy in the heart of London.
Wiltshire lamb chops I suspect were also sourced from Walter Rose, based in Devizes. I lived in Wiltshire for a while and the local pubs tended to punch about their weight in terms of meat dishes thanks to their supplier. It wasn’t until I returned to London that I discovered how popular Walter Rose was a commercial butcher, supplying many of the Michelin restaurant in London and the M25. Tender and sweet, these were the perfect cutlets with their aubergine and green harissa dressing.
Then there was the Josper-Bone for two. It’s cooked on the josper and then brought flaming to table before being taken away to be cut up for you. Served medium rare, it comes with roast potatoes, and we enjoyed a side order of ‘josperised’ hispi cabbage with garlic and chilli.
By now our table of four were quite full. But we couldn’t miss desserts. At least not ones that sounded as beautiful as some of these.
Pineapple, crème patisserie, chocolate soil, sorrel and apple was a delicious flavour combination with the dark chocolate soil and bruléed creme patisserie nicely softening the acidic pineapple.
Picture perfect cheesecake with mango and black olive caramel was another beautifully composed dessert with flavours that really complemented each other.
We also tried some of the ice cream and a portion of cheese both of which were excellent and reflected the excellent sourcing throughout the meal.
Marylebone is a bit of a gastronomy hot spot in London and Twist Kitchen is now added to my own list of favourites in the area – places like Providores and Tapa Room, the original IbericaThe Royal Oak and The Harcourt. I’m not sure there’s anything wrong with having competition – this is somewhere people head when they want to eat well and avoid the marketing hype of Covent Garden and the West End. Twist Kitchen stands out for exceptional sourcing, perfect preparation and excellent service. It’s somewhere I’ll be going again soon and I highly recommend you pop along and try for yourself.
42 Crawford Street
Tel: 020 7723 3377
Father’s day is over, but we’ve got a very special giveaway for you if you want to make your dad (or anyone else) very happy.
While gin became popular in London after the accession of William of Orange in 1688 the fever grew throughout the late 17th century and there were a plethora of gin shops throughout London. But, every single one closed in the 18th century due to famine, government regulations and taxation. The City of London Distillery is the very first distillery to open in London’s Square Mile for almost 200 years. You can read more about the distillery and the amazing experiences on offer at www.cityoflondondistillery.com.
We’ve got a really fabulous experience for any dad (or for that matter, any gin lover). An afternoon packed with history, stories and gin of course courtesy of City Of London Distillery. Available to buy and book online now.
One lucky London-Unattached reader will win two tickets for a guided tour and tasting at the City of London Distillery. Tucked away off London’s famous Fleet Street, winners will learn about the history of gin in London from the distillery’s resident gin expert, and get to grips with City of London Distillery’s gin making techniques followed by a three-flight gin tasting.
What’s more, the lucky pair will get to take away one of City Of London Distillery’s premium gins; City Of London Dry Gin, City Of London Old Tom Gin, City Of London Christopher Wren Gin, City Of London Square Mile Gin, City Of London Six Bells Leemon Gin, City Of London Murcian Orange Gin, City Of London Rhubarb & Rose Gin and City Of London Sloe Gin.
If you’d like a chance to win the tour and bottle of gin then just follow the Rafflecopter through, remembering to answer the mandatory question.
Basilicata, a beautiful region in southern Italy, is one of the lesser known parts of the country but, as I discovered recently, certainly somewhere worth exploring. The stunning hilltop towns and villages rise above verdant green valleys. This region is very mountainous with the Dolomiti Lucane mountain range, craggy peaks of rock jutting into the sky, taking their name from the Dolomites in the north of Italy. Situated in the south of Italy, Basilicata has two stretches of coastline, the Ionian Sea to the east near Metaponta and the Tyrrhenian Sea to the west near Maratea. Not only is the region full of picturesque places to visit, but it is also relatively quiet compared to the big cities frequented by large numbers of international tourists.
Matera – a UNESCO World Heritage City in Basilicata.
Matera, just over an hour’s drive from Bari airport, was the first town we visited. Matera, is one of the two European Capital of culture cities in 2019, also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with a programme of cultural events running throughout 2019. Matera is in a dramatic setting with the old sections of the city being a maze of higgledy-piggledy buildings with numerous narrow passages and winding streets. Luckily we had a guide as it would have been very easy to get lost.
The heart of the city is built on a ravine with two Sassi, derived from the word saxum meaning a cliff made of stone, rising up from the rock face, traditionally the homes were in caves which have been renovated in recent times to create homes, hotels and other facilities. Built of sandstone the buildings have a striking mellow golden glow in the sunshine. Even the churches or Rupestri, meaning cave churches, are built into the rock. Many of these are currently closed as they are being restored to their former state.
We stayed overnight in the Sassi hotel, with amazing views of the cathedral rising up into the sky on the top of the ridge opposite. Many of the rooms at this hotel, the rooms are on different levels, with connecting staircases and steps, are built into the rock and resemble caves.
I stayed in room 101, a cave room on the lowest level, it was modestly furnished with an upper level containing a sofa and chair and I felt very comfortable and secure.
Luxury at Palazzo Margherita, Barnaldo.
As an alternative, a unique luxury hotel to stay in would be Palazzo Margherita in Barnaldo, 40 minutes’ drive from Matera. This beautiful boutique hotel, built by the Margherita family in 1892, is not far from the Ionian sea with the town being where Agostino Coppola, Francis Ford Coppola’s grandfather was born. It was bought by Francis Ford Coppola in 2004 and renovated to make a stunning, stylish, hideaway. All the rooms or suites have their own distinct character with luxury furnishings.
The garden and pool area have also been updated with great attention to detail. The atmosphere is relaxed rather than formal with guests having the option to chose various locations in the hotel or grounds for breakfast or dinner.
The lounge has an integral screen for showing the library of over one hundred films handpicked by Francis Ford Coppola. The level of service at Palazzo Margherita is excellent without being too attentive.
We were fortunate to participate in a pasta cooking class, available for guests staying at the hotel, it was great fun. I was amazed at how easy it is to make pasta dough, just flour, water and a good kneading with your hands. Our cookery host made shaping the pasta look very easy…sadly our results were not as impressive!
Having made the pasta the chef cooked it in a simple but tasty Italian sauce. We lunched on the pasta in the beautiful outside courtyard. To accompany the pasta, freshly baked bread and deliciously crispy, battered sage leaves straight from the vegetable garden. To follow gratinated artichoke hearts with buffalo mozzarella a hearty dish. For dessert a milk ice cream with sweet, local, strawberries, beautifully presented and a perfect end to our lunch. Our meal was accompanied by Angelina wine, a white wine made in Basilicata. I would love to stay at Palazzo Margherita if I travel to Basilicata again in the future.
Rural Charm in Castelmezzano, Basilicata.
Our next stop was Castelmezzano, a charming, small, village built into the cliff face. The streets are so narrow that a car can’t access the heart of the village. We climbed the steep steps up to a vantage point with stunning views over Castelmezzano and the surrounding countryside.
There are no hotels in Castelmezzano but accommodation called “diffusa”, similar to the B&Bs we find in the UK. My accommodation was at the very top of the village, up a steep flight of steps: a small light apartment, complete with a bedroom,/lounge, a bathroom and a kitchenette. The alcove for the bed receded into the rock, which made it very unique. The view over the valley below was amazing.
From Castelmezzano you can take the Flight of the Angel, a zip wire running across the valley, taking 90 seconds, which has proved to be an immensely popular visitor attraction.
An ancient fortification at Pietrapertosa.
The next day we headed on to Pietrapertosa another hilltop town built into the side of a rock face. The bells were ringing out as a wedding was taking place. This town is hidden from view, by the rock, a defensive strategy to avoid being spotted from the valley. We climbed up a path to see the remains of Pietrapertosa castle, on the top of the rocky crag, the oldest parts of this fortification date back to the 12thCentury.
The panoramic view from the castle is stunningly beautiful, with little hilltop settlements atop the surrounding hills, and Castelmezzano visible down below. You can also visit a beautiful church, which used to be the convent of Saint Francis, the inside walls are covered with colourful frescos.
A picturesque coastal stay at Maratea, Basilicata.
Our visit ended in Maratea on the Tyrrhenian Sea. The current old town is a maze of extremely narrow streets, with houses jutting straight up from the rock. This is another place where you could easily lose your way.
On the headland above, where the town was originally based, and a cross was located, is a striking twenty-two metre high statue of Christ the Redeemer. This was commissioned by the wealthy industrialist Count Stefano Rivetti, who gained his inspiration from the statue in Rio de Janeiro. The structure, made from marble and concrete, was built off-site and erected in situ by the Florentine sculptor Bruno Innocenzi in 1965, at the top of Monte San Biagio. The outstretched arms face inland welcoming the town inhabitants.
This is a destination in Southern Italy that I would definitely recommend. The countryside of Basilicata is stunningly beautiful with the hilltop..
Have you ever found yourself at a gallery or museum wanting to stay longer to see more, but knowing that you need some food, only to be disappointed with a selection of sad limp cling-film wrapped sandwiches? I know that I have.
The good news is that many of our national treasures have upped their game in recent years. The National Gallery on Trafalgar Square invited us to try their all day brunch which is available daily from 9.30 a.m until 5 p.m. and we were keen to experience what they had to offer.
The principal entrance to the cafe is to the side of the National Gallery opposite to St. Martin-in-the-Fields, allowing the cafe to stay open a little longer than the main gallery. Although we entered through the main entrance to the National and wandered through a few of the gallery rooms admiring the Old Masters en route. The cafe is pretty; decorated in soft pink and grey, with comfortable seating and plenty of light.
We started brunch with a breakfast basket containing hot toast, a buttery croissant and home-made jam along with a pot of English Breakfast tea.
With a lovely glass of champagne poured, we moved onto our brunch dishes. Alex, my partner, chose the duck hash. A very satisfying dish of duck, potatoes and a perfectly cooked fried egg sitting atop waiting to be cut and ooze yolk arrived. There wasn’t a lot of chat from him, which I took as a sign that he was enjoying the dish!
I’d opted for the courgette and spring vegetable fritter in some semblance of eating healthily. The deliciously salty slice of grilled halloumi probably put paid to that. It was served with wild garlic oil, which didn’t appear in the description on the menu. Although reasonably subtle, it was still a little too dominant a flavour for me. But then I am peculiar, in that I really don’t like the taste of garlic on its own, it’s fine if it’s in the chorus, just not the solo singer!
The quality of the produce and the attentive service was lovely. The atmosphere was calm; making this the perfect place to come to unwind after a day in the West End or a long day of ‘being cultured’ in the National Gallery. The brunch was the perfect start to our day, and I wouldn’t hesitate to pay the National Gallery Cafe another visit.
Fiona from the London-Unattached team has also been to the National Gallery Cafe recently to try the set dinner menu and found much the same high standard of food, drink and service.
In addition to the waited area of the cafe, there is a grab-and-go self-service cafe for those who need refreshing at pace.
Some years ago, London dining revolved around traditional English and French classic restaurants, Indian takeaways focussed on Chicken Tikka Masala while you might head to Chinatown for Peking Duck. Those Brits who headed to Spain enjoyed the Costa del Sol because the restaurants had menus designed especially for their conservative visitors. There wasn’t much in the way of Spanish food to try in London- and the concept of Tapas was relatively unknown.
El Pirata opened in June 1994 in a backstreet of Shepherd Market Mayfair and was quickly one of those places you just knew would be fun. I remember trying my first Patatas Bravas there, my first Padron Peppers and my first Boquerones. It was the kind of place you’d arrange to meet your friends and then just end up staying. I still go there with friends and love that El Pirata still offers traditional Spanish food in a friendly and informal setting.
25 years on, it’s birthday time for El Pirata and they are celebrating in style with a special Back to ’94 Menu that runs from Friday 14th June till Saturday 29th June. With 12 tapas dishes and two wines at their 1994 prices, it’s a great chance to enjoy a blast from the past without breaking the bank.
We went along for a little preview…although we did indulge in a bottle of house cava. And on that traditional trio of things to nibble on while you choose your tapas – serrano ham, Padron peppers and pan con tomate. In a sense a good reminder of why I still end up spending evenings there – you start that way and just somehow end up carrying on till it’s too late to go anywhere else.
Picking from the 1994 menu, we chose the ensalada de tres colores – avocado, tomato and mozzarella salad (£3.95 from the Back to 1994 menu) which was pleasant and refreshing.
Pescaito Frito was a little disappointing, perhaps because of the breadcrumb coating on the fish which seemed just a little too close to the cooking of the 90s. But at £3.75 for a portion it didn’t seem to matter.
My personal favourite from the dishes we tasted was calamares con arroz negro – black rice with squid, a delicious, salty and fishy bowl of comfort food with rice that had just the right amount of bite. It’s a dramatic plateful too – I don’t remember being brave enough to try it 25 years ago.
Chorizo al vino is an old favourite that doesn’t ever disappoint at El Pirata, with excellent quality chorizo braised gently in red wine till it is meltingly tender.
In some kind of tribute to the concept of five a day, we ordered berenjena jardinera – an aubergine stuffed with vegetables and topped with cheese. Perhaps not the prettiest dish on the menu, it was tender and full of flavour and definitely a good complement to the rest of our order.
That old favourite of patatas bravas never fails to please, especially at the 1994 price of £2.75 The El Pirata version is traditional, with chunks of crispy potatoes topped with paprika-laced mayonnaise. And Vuelta de carne was a succulent plate of steak in a garlic, red pepper and white wine sauce.
We WERE quite full by this stage so opted for lighter desserts from the main menu.
A fresh fruit salad and crema Catalana with a crunchy caramelised top made the perfect end to the meal.
El Pirata is a restaurant with quite a celebrity following with fans including Johnny Dep, Jose Mourinho and even First Dates Maître d’ Fred Sirieix who named the restaurant as one of his favourite restaurants in London. We were quite amused to find that queen of the duvet cover, Anthea Turner, celebrating her birthday at El Pirata on the night we were there. It’s the kind of place where ever-smiling Patron, Jose Rodrigues, ensures that every guest who walks through the doors is made to feel at home.
And it’s thanks to that hospitality – combined with excellent traditional Spanish food that has makes El Pirata such a success for the last 25 year.
5-6 Down Street,
London, W1J 7AQ
If you are looking for more contemporary Spanish cuisine in the area we recommend Street XO but, for traditional Spanish Tapas in a friendly environment, El Pirata is hard to beat.
Let me start by saying that a review of the Dinner Set Menu at Bill’s is a bit misleading. There are five starters, six mains and four desserts – plus an assortment of specials. There are veggie and vegan options at each stage and an extra bonus that if you order two dinner set menu meals you get a bottle of house wine for £12. So you don’t feel as if you are dining from a ‘set menu’ at all and you know your bill will be less than £50 for the two of you, including wine and two courses. That’s really not bad in my book. Unless the food disappoints. We went along to check it out – read on to see what we thought.
My companion seemed to have decided to be vegan (although he most definitely is not). He ordered the crispy fried cauliflower with kimchi, pickled red onions and red pepper dressing, which looked stunning. Nutty and al-dente cauliflower beautifully spiced and served with a piquant pepper dressing.
Meanwhile, I opted for the crispy calamari, a classic dish which came with the tender calamari coated in panko breadcrumbs and delicious lime aioli on the side which lifted the dish nicely.
Other menu options included a delicious sounding ham hock, pickled carrot and mustard terrine or chicken and sesame dumplings.
Rather to my surprise, my carnivorous friend picked ‘Bill’s Wellington’ as his main course. Another vegan option, he explained that he was used to eating from the a la carte menu with a vegan friend – and that he’d actually thought the restaurant was vegetarian! Well, it’s not, but the vegetarian options are very good indeed. He thoroughly enjoyed his Wellington with a gravy that looked rich and full of umami flavours complementing the flaky pastry and the carrot, cashew nut and mushroom filling of the Wellington itself. There was a generous portion of butterbean mash too.
I was tucking into a refined dish of pan-fried chicken with wild mushrooms. A delicious and well-cooked chicken breast with a slathering of mixed mushrooms and a creamy wild mushroom sauce to pour over the herby mash. This is the kind of food where you forget what great value for money you are getting and just enjoy the experience.
We were happily quaffing a bottle of Bill’s own red wine too – remarkably good for £12 a bottle!
When it came to dessert I have to admit I was torn between ordering the warm mini cinnamon doughnuts and my final choice of warm triple chocolate brownie. It was delicious – every bit as good as the ones I make at home and served with a portion of ice cream and a naughty little flake!
My companion’s dessert went off piste a bit because we were both intrigued by the idea of lemon meringue cheesecake in a glass. Well, you know, it was what it said it would be! Love at first bite for him, the light, soft, caramelised meringue covered a delicious lemon curd and soft cheese mixture on a crumbed biscuit base.
We’d spent the evening dining al-fresco in the pretty courtyard at the front of Bill’s Reading, which from the address I am guessing must have been the vicarage for the Church opposite at one time. Indoors, the interior is classic Bill’s, perhaps not quite as impressive as the Covent Garden Bill’s restaurant but still with an eclectic selection of antiques and Bric a Brac, so we wouldn’t have been disappointed to have been forced there by the weather. But, given our lack of summer so far, I feel the need to take advantage of the few balmy evenings we have. In Reading, Bill’s benefits from being just a little way from the Oracle and Canalside restaurants. It’s a bit quieter and a bit easier to find the right place to sit. And, who could complain about such a substantial meal at such a reasonable price?
Rave reviews for a new Japanese restaurant on Old Compton Street – we check things out!
A stroll along Old Compton Street brings you to Robata, a new Japanese restaurant in an area already packed with enticing places to stop and eat. Londoners are lucky to have so many excellent Japanese restaurants to choose from and izakaya-style Robata joins that list, already earning rave reviews.
Over the years it’s been a real pleasure to learn the lexicon of classic Japanese cooking and there’s a lot to learn – there are about 30 different types of Japanese restaurants. Ramen, yakitori, soba, tonkatsu, sushi, tempura and teriyaki are types of dish and restaurant which have become more and more familiar to UK diners but perhaps less well-known is izakaya.
Literally meaning “sitting in a sake shop”, an izakaya is a sort of Japanese tapas bar, somewhere for casual after-work drinking and informal eating, a place for hard-working Japanese salarymen to relax over beer, sake and small dishes. In Soho’s Robata, there’ll also be hard-working office workers but also couples and groups of friends enjoying a quick pre-theatre dinner or a longer night out.
The atmosphere at Robata is relaxed and informal, as an izakaya should be, the thump of music is there but doesn’t drown out conversation. Apart from the Manga-ish murals going downstairs and colourful loo doors, Robata’s designers have gone for a pared-back look.
The cool dark tones are leavened though by clean, paler wooden furniture, which offers a variety of seating. Sit at a table or a bench, or perch yourself on a stool watching the chefs work their magic at Robata’s robata. (A robatayaki – or robata for short – is a type of Japanese charcoal grill).
Forget the idea of starters, mains and desserts, the menu at Robata is split into Raws & Sushis, Small Plates, Robata Skewers, Bao Buns, Robata Large plates and Bowls. As the food is served as soon as it’s ready, it’s a good idea to order as you go along rather than all at once.
Raws & Sushis include a range of sashimi, including salmon, tuna, yellowtail and butterfish, offered individually or in a good value set. The Tuna Tartar (served with caviar and crisps) (£9) is eye-catching – it looks like a big fish-eye – and is light and delicious.
From the Small Plates section of this Japanese restaurant, the J.Fried Karaage (£8.50) is very tasty – after the crunch of the crispy coating, the chicken thigh meat inside is beautifully soft. Tricky to manipulate with sticks, the best approach is to use your digits to dip the chicken into the gochujang mayo, creamily spicy and smoky – finger-licking good.
The Robata Skewers are small sticks of delight. The Chicken Thigh (£3.20 per piece; minimum two pieces) has tenderness and a thin sweet soy glaze to offset the small bits of barbecue char. Two lovely mouthfuls per skewer, they are soon just a memory.
From the Bao Buns part of the menu, the Soft Shell Crab (£14 for two pieces) is yet another finger-licker. Generously filled – you’ll need two hands to grip it – the bun is marshmallow soft, the crab crisp and the mayo spicy.
The Robata Large plates include its signature dish of Wood Flamed Iberico Pork Pluma (£23.50). Pluma is a slice of super tender meat and, served with zingy black pepper and sweet pickled nashi pear, it really is very good. The Miso Aubergine (£11.50) is wonderfully soft, melted like one of Dali’s clocks, deeply sweet with a chilli kick. As a side dish, you can choose from a short list of Bowls including a couple of salads, Truffle Fries (£8), Steamed (£3) or Kimchi Rice (£8).
The Black Cod (£28) is a beautiful piece of sweetly cooked fish, soft and flavoursome. Amongst so many stand-out dishes, the Broccoli Steak (£9.50) is possibly the least enjoyable. Good-sized pieces of broccoli are grilled and served crunchy with chilli but the charred flavour lingers too long in the mouth and jars the taste buds.
To wash it away, as you’d expect Robata offers a wide range of drinks. There are Japanese beers, of course, led by Asahi on draught, and the list of sakes is extensive. Starting at £4.50 for a glass of Ozeki Junmai Sake, prices go up to £12 for a top of the range Kikusui Setsugoro Shuppinshu Daiginjo Genshu (maybe start with this one – it’s definitely not going to be easy to say after a few glasses…).
The cocktails feature sake as a base (like a Sake Mojito) (£9) and some would make a great way to round off your meal. The sweet Ume Ocha (£11) comprises plum sake, peach liqueur and pineapple juice (and could count as 3 of your 5 a day…).
It’s very easy to run up a large bill at Robata – prices are at the premium end of the range, there’s a lot of great dishes to choose from and if you’re not careful, it’s easy to over order. However, the fixed price lunch and pre-theatre dinner menus (£18.50 and £22.50 for five items; pre-theatre menu includes a glass of wine) are very good value, comprising a short but well-chosen selection of dishes. A great way to dip your toe in the water at this Japanese restaurant.
Other Japanese restaurants we recommend include Kouzo near Victoria Station for excellent raw seafood and nearby Umi for a more formal Nikkei experience. We also like Sake no Hanna, the Japanese showcase of the Hakkasan group in London. In Soho, Robata has competition from Inko Nito, while for those living in West London we heartily recommend Ukai for a similar style of dining housed in an old Victorian pub.
Innis and Gunn beer and food pairing at Hix Oyster and Chop House, Smithfield:
In the craft beer arena, there are the new young guns and the old guard. Old doesn’t actually mean that old though as the craft beer revolution in the UK just isn’t that old. Innis and Gunn, however, were pretty much in at the start. Dougal Sharp founded Innis and Gunn in 2003. You might wonder why it isn’t called “Sharps” Apparently Innis and Gunn are Dougal and his brother’s middle names. It certainly has a good ring to it. Despite being amongst the small cadre of what is the old guard, Innis and Gunn have not sat on their laurels (and they’ve won quite a few!), instead, they have consistently experimented and innovated. Dougal had been barrel ageing beer pretty much since day one, but that presents a problem when you have strong demand, as having beer tied up in barrels maturing for a period is very costly and time-consuming. Dougal had an epiphany and thought ” why put the beer in the barrel when we can put the barrel in the beer?” This spark of a thought led Dougal to slicing up the barrels and then dispensing them into the beer in stainless steel tanks. The result was an identical flavour profile. This clever move allows for barrel-aged beer to be produced at a much lower cost without any loss of quality. Many other craft breweries have followed this example, but Dougal was there first. Before starting Innis and Gunn, Dougal spent 15 years working for his father at the Caledonian Brewery. It was there that he discovered the benefits of barrel ageing beer, and was ready to strike out on his own. It was a bit of a gamble to be launching a brewery on the back of a lesser known technique then, but Dougal stuck to his ideas, and you will now find many other breweries around the world who have barrel projects.
Mark Hix is an English restaurateur and Chef, having spent 17 years in the trade before opening the Hix Oyster and Chop House in Smithfield, where we were fortunate to be eating this evening. Mark’s restaurants prioritise British ingredients and cooking, and food and alcohol pairings have always been at the forefront. Beer is now beginning to get the attention it’s due in food pairing and it’s great to see two British masters in their fields get their heads together and produce something special.
We started off with a starter of beer battered oysters, the batter, of course, being made with Innis and Gunn beer. This was paired with ”The Original” Bourbon barrel aged. There is some light residual malty sweetness in this beer which worked well with the slight sweetness you find in oysters. Beer often pairs extremely well with anything with a fat content such as battered food has, as the carbonation works very well as a palate cleanser, gently scrubbing your palate and thereby allowing a fresh wave of taste to cross it. “The Original” has great complexity to it, and the Bourbon is clear, but not overpowering at all, more a notable background note.
Next up was a Gull’s egg and Wye Valley Asparagus salad, also paired with “The Original” British in season asparagus is wonderful, and the gull’s egg very creamy and rich, but the dressing on the salad on this dish was something else. I wish I could make a dressing like that! Once again the Original beer worked well, this time contrasting against the green vegetal note of the asparagus, and the sharpness of the dressing. The main course and star of the show was the Stargazy pie, paired with “Blood Red Sky” which is aged with Rum Barrels. The Stargazy pie is a classic British pie with rabbit and lobster serving as the meat element. Everything about this pie was fantastic and moreish, with super-short pastry, and a very rich gravy. The Rum notes in the Blood Red Sky beer were a perfect match here again, with the slightly sweet tang of rum somehow meeting the lobster taste perfectly! This beer has a slight red wine like quality to it, and it’s slightly higher alcohol content of 6.8% abv is a good match to rich food.
The final two dishes were the desert courses, a sweet chocolate mousse and honeycomb dish, and baked Camembert from Alex James’s dairy. The chocolate course was paired with “Vanishing point 02” an Imperial stout aged for a year in Bourbon barrels. As an Imperial Stout, it’s in the correct abv range at 11% and is rich and viscous. This was a case of sweet with sweet in matching. Vanishing point 02 in itself is not sweet, having some slight tannic over notes, but the middle range is alcoholic Damsons, with Bourbon appearing in the aftertaste. It’s a fantastic example of an Imperial Stout!
The cheese was the opposite in terms of matching, being served with the “Gunpowder IPA” The IPA is hopped with American Cascade and Citra hops, which impart notes of mango and grapefruit, and bitterness is dialled up a little. This serves to cut through the fattiness of the cheese and provide a palate-cleansing action, so when you take another bite of the cheese you get the initial hit of cheesiness again and again.
Innis and Gunn are perhaps less well known than they should be. They’ve been in the craft beer scene for a lot longer than most others, and have innovated new techniques quietly and efficiently. Unlike others, they have not shouted from the rooftops about how great they are but just got on with it. The result is that they have a very solid range of superb beers that will stand up to anything else out there. If you have not considered pairing beer with food before, then now’s the time really, it has a huge amount to offer. Innis and Gunn’s barrel aged beers can be found in many supermarkets, or online on their website. Give them a go, you won’t be disappointed I guarantee.