Saturday, 8 December 2012

Everybody needs good neighbours

A good neighbourhood restaurant is a wonderful thing. That place you can walk to, even in the grimmest weather, enjoy genuinely familiar service, see those people from down the road. To some it might sound awful; a break from the anonymous cover that London affords. Not I.

It's something I've thought a lot about recently - a colleague was recently telling me about neighbourhoods that benefit from good systems or good levels of empathy. Good systems (transport) mean people come and go easily, and so lack empathy. Empathetic neighbourhoods typically have poor systems, but people rub together well - using local facilities. I like to think this is true of much of Hackney - our relative disconnecteness means we spend more time on our doorstep, and benefit from the warmth of familiar contact.

Shane's on Chatsworth in Lower Clapton is a fine example of a neighbourhood restaurant, and not just because I can walk there in two minutes. It's at the centre of the neighbourhood, sandwiched between a fruit and veg shop and an old electrical store, with big windows looking onto the street - it's part of it. It's small, bright and personal, no more than 30 covers, so it always feels intimate and cosy. Shane, the proprietor and chef, pops up to make sure everyone is happy and enjoying the food.

And they are. The food is excellent. Modern British some might say, focusing on well sourced game and seafood from not too far away, some foraged leafs. It isn't pious about it, which is refreshing. We were there on a Saturday in November, and enjoyed the riches of the latest haul of game from Shane's supplier.

Starters were simple and understated: we particularly enjoyed the venison scotch eggs with a semi-soft quail's egg inside. The venison was really simply and effectively seasoned and had really high meat content. It came with lightly pickled autumn veg.

We also enjoyed the mixed game terrine - proper chunks of pheasant, pigeon and venison, brushed with an almost sweet jelly and served with pickled pears. All flavours amazing together - meat and fruit, an ancient combination.

The wild fallow deer came highly recommended and my fellow diners certainly enjoyed it. It was so tender, but still bright pink inside. Served with a celariac puree and red and gold beetroot, and the flavours were perfectly autumnal.

I opted for wood pigeon with a herby parsnip puree and kale with chestnuts. It was unbelievable. The pigeon  was perfectly cooked - seared and charred on the outside, pink and juicy inside, a small amount of luscious jus. The parnsip mash was intense, rich and bursting with woody sweet flavours. Kale and chestnuts is a favourite combination - just couldn't get enough.

I had a sample of a friend's hake and shellfish stew - delicious, subtly and served with warm crusty bread.

The meal was incredibly filling, despite portions being sensible in size. But we had to try desserts - clementine posset, beetroot and chocolate cake with candied fennel, and a bread and butter pudding. All were delicious but the clementine posset was particularly good - so zesty and refreshing after all that rich food. Clementine is underused as an ingredient, and it's just perfect at this time of year.

With two glasses of wine each, starters, mains, desserts and a tip it came to £34 a head. It's definitely a fair price for the quality, though some local people were surprised at the prices when they saw the first menu up in the window earlier in the year. Shane has responded and now there's a range of menus and offers to make it more affordable - there's now a two/three course with wine option for £18/£21, afternoon tapas and wine offers that are very fair priced. I loved it, and am so pleased to have it in the neighbourhood. I'll keep going back to check out the menu as the seasons change.

Saturday, 24 November 2012

Hackney brunchin': Dreyfus Cafe

Brunching options are hotting up in the Clapton area. I've raved about the wonderful Cooper and Wolf Swedish style brunch, I've sampled the eggs benedict at Shane's on Chatsworth (quality). Recently the lovely Cakey Muto has been doing a Sunday brunch of french toast, bacon and maple syrup (yet to try out), but a new favourite for a classic brunch is Dreyfus Cafe on the corner of Clapton Square and Lower Clapton Road.

Dreyfus Cafe is a light and bright neighbourhood cafe with a classic continental look: red leather banks, classy prints, bistro tables. None of this exposed brick and bare bulb aesthetic. Accordingly, the menu has a north/central/eastern European leaning - some meatballs, goulash, pacakes, smoked salmon and cream cheese, pastrami, warming soups. Excellent cheesecakes, and Has Bean coffee to boot!

We popped in for brunch a few weeks back and were pleased to see it doing a solid weekend trade, after a bit of an unlucky first few weeks' training - ill chefs, temp staff, half menus. The folk at Dreyfus picked up and it's now on good form.

I rate a brunch by the execution of the eggs benedict. These eggs are some of the best I've had. The top selling point for me was being able to mix and match your eggs - you could have any combination of eggs benedict (ham), florentine (spinach), royale (salmon). You could have two of the same, one on its own, one of each. Mindblowing - but why did nobody think of that sooner? I had a benedict and a florentine:

As the picture suggests, these are generously portioned - lots of ham, lots of spinach. Eggs poached to absolute perfection - just oozing yolk, and perfectly formed. The hollandaise is brilliant too.

My other half had pancakes with bacon and maple syrup, and my nibble suggests they were also a success. Great bacon, generous pancake portion. Yum.

The service, while friendly, was a bit hectic at the peak brunch hours of 11 - 12. When I popped in today for brunch there was a fairly long wait for food, which the staff warned us about. It's not a major problem when the food is this tasty, and I doubt anyone will not go back as a result, but the owners will need to make sure they have coping strategies for busy periods.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Rita's, finally

I have a little rule about places that get really hyped up and lots of reviews: avoid them, at least for a few months. The pressure that comes immediately after that review can cause crippling demand, make it hard to get a table, and if a place is still finding its feet, can make the service chaotic. Of course, some will cope admirably - but why not wait?

So I waited and waited and finally made it to the much hyped Rita's last week. It's currently operating out of the kitchen at Birthday's - a brash and basic new bar owned by the guys (assuming gender here) at Vice Inc. It's entry to the world - bringing some US style soul food to Dalston - was quickly celebrated, celebrities were snapped, and some dreadful names to describe the cuisine were coined - "bourgeois redneck", "junk food re-imagined".

But my experience last week confirms that Rita's more than lives up to the hype. We ordered a selection of the most celebrated dishes from the menu to give it a proper test - fried chicken in a roll, sticky soy and ginger chicken wings, chilli mac and cheese and mustard greens.

The fried chicken roll was exceptional - perfectly formed roll, the chicken seemed to be a mixture of so so succulent white and brown meat, soaked in buttermilk and with a lovely, crunchy thick breadcrumb. A splash of burger sauce and some crisp iceberg and it was perfect. We loved the way it came in a brown paper bag - a tongue in cheeky nod to junk food reputation.

The mac and cheese was a real highlight - and all the better for green chilli in the sauce, properly cheesy (knocking the Mishkin's mac'n'cheese out the water), and topped with a runny-ish guacamole. That went really well with the flavours, adding a refreshing hit to a very rich dish. Good news: you can make this at home now - Rita's shared the recipe with the excellent Editer magazine.

We were absolutely stuffed, but my friend had schlepped all the way over from Chiswick, so we had to have dessert (and another cocktail, dang). The menu has two pies (in the American sense). My blueberry muffin pie was exceptional - a thin crumb bass, topped with lightly stewed blueberries, topped with sticky, gooey muffin, and then some piped cream. Oh, and some hot maple butter to pour over it. Artery clogging, but so delicious. Celia's key lime pie was only topped with some kind of quince meringue.

We loved Rita's and I'll be back for more. The day after - in fact - I was dreaming of that chicken roll, it's perfect crumbs, the succulent meat. I thought it was fair value too - the portions were decent, and all of that (including two cocktails each) came to £34 with tip (which is shared fully among the waiters if you pay on card).

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Berlin: Prenzlauer Berg

When I lived in Berlin, it was ALL about Prenzlauer Berg. Getting an apartment in Prenzlauer Berg was the aim of most Erasmus students. Friedrichshain was second rung, Kreuzberg third. Anywhere else was met with derision - you live where?! I lived on the borders of Prenz and more elegant Mitte, and couldn't believe how affordable my rent was compared to London. Oh and what quality you got too.

Eating out back then was all about cheap Thai restaurants, Vietnamese noodles Turkish fast food, and many mid price places made without love. An old favourite back then was Gugelhof, which stood out from the crowd. It served up food from Alsace, and boasted of being the politicos favourite - Chancellor Schroeder took Bill Clinton here one time when he was in town.

Now, Prenzlauer Berg is post-gentrified - it's a little bit like an affordable version of Notting Hill, losing a bit of its edge in favour of mainstream bohemianism. It's still very lovely - glorious streets, a still scruffy epic Sunday fleamarket, and, with its post-gentrified state: good eating options.

Particularly nice was Les Valseuses, a newish French bistro opened up on Eberswalderstr. It has a super short, regularly changing menu - three starters, mains, desserts and a few daily specials - which I consider to be a good indication of quality. We shared a run of tapenades and a salad of buffalo mozzarella, jerusalem artichoke, pear and a light curry sauce. The tapenades were inspired - not something you often see in restaurants, but tasting of salty, summery indulgence. The salad was a really unusual combination but worked really well together.

I had steak with bernaise butter and frites. Very simple, but everything bursting with flavour. The chips tasted like they'd been fried in beef dripping, and had perfect crunchiness from triple frying.

Desserts included classics like creme brulee, but I opted for candied pumpkin with whipped chestnut cream and candied nuts. It was sensational - earthy, sweet, crunchy, burnty.

We loved the service - very jovial and informal, especially for the double whammy of being a French restaurant in Berlin (definitely not famed for service culture). And the interior was very East London - plane white walls, bits of chipboard and vintage fixed gear bikes dotted around.

Kauf dich glücklich is a twee German mini clothes chain, but it's store on Oderbergerstr is home to a cafe too - serving some of the best waffles in Berlin.

We dropped buy after the fleamarket for some - there was a 20 minute queue to order, and then a 30 minute wait for them to arrive. But at around 3.50Euro for a decent portion of waffles, with ice cream and warm cherries, it was well worth the wait.

Round the corner from my old flat is a new coffee bar like no other. At The Barn, coffee is taken so seriously that small children aren't allowed in because they'll spoil the peace. There's a bollard at the door, blocking the entrance to prams. Coffee is served as pure as it comes - no milk, no sugar, no nothing.

The coffee makers (I daren't call them baristas for fear of being reductive) used traditional paper filters and other drip systems to give the coffee the ultimate treatment. After about 20 minutes - waiting mostly  not brewing - my chic black jug of coffee was ready. I was recommended to let it sit for three minutes while it reached its optimum temperature - and yes, it was very nice - caramelly, woody, complex. I enjoyed the ceremony, and it was an incredibly peaceful place to enjoy a coffee and contemplate its every nuance.

Sunday, 28 October 2012

Get stuck in to Upper Clapton sourdough

I mentioned recently the beginnings of some exciting stuff happening north of the Leabridge Roundabout in relatively-neglected Upper Clapton. Most notably, some folk who've been making pizzas at the esteemed E5 Bakehouse have recently opened a sourdough pizza restaurant called Sodo at 126 Upper Clapton Road. Loving pizza, sourdough and anything that I can easily walk to, I had to check it out.

Lower Clapton Road is no beauty queen - scruffy, dark and busy with traffic, but Upper Clapton Road can feel even more unforgiving - with bigger estates, faster moving traffic and a sometime sense of abandonment. I've said before that busy roads can be challenging places to make hanging out destinations; that's probably why relatively chilled Chatsworth Road has become such a magnet for cafes.

But Sodo is a brave first, and judging by my experience on Friday night, it will give confidence to prospective businesses that a restaurant in Upper Clapton, done well, can be a real success.

Sodo's premise is simple: a short menu of sourdough based pizzas, a couple of specials and sides, Hackney beer (bottles of London Fields and Beavertown), Borough wine, and a couple of desserts. The look is, naturally, light industrial - exposed bricks, white, chipboard, lots of wires and low hanging bulbs. It feels spacious, fresh and fun - and the waiting staff are very friendly and efficient.

We ordered a Sunny Goat (goats cheese, sundried tomato, rocket) and a Lorena (feta, butternut squash, rosemary, pine nut). Both really excellent combinations - the goats cheese was top quality because I could eat it without needing to replace the taste with something else (!), and Lorena tasted very autumnal - the pine nuts and squash giving a real earthy warmth. The sourdough pizza bases were excellent - nicely tart, just the right balance of springiness and crispiness.

Their dessert menu was equally succinct and on-the-money - tiramisu or affogato. Tiramisu is my all time favourite dessert, so I had to see how theirs fared. Served in a dainty glass, the mascarpone was not-too-sweet and the sponge was soaked in nice bitter coffee - it felt like a puritan's tiramisu, stripped back and good for it.

We loved Sodo - it had a really laid back atmosphere, and quick enough turnover that meant everyone who rocked up over the course of the evening got a table straight away without the bustle ceasing. It's a no-bookings place, so it will be interesting to see whether its very likely increase in popularity will manifest in queues or other places moving in to soak up the demand. Either way, get yourself to Sodo if you love pizza.

Friday, 26 October 2012

Hello Kreuzberg

North Eat Eats went to North and East Berlin over the weekend - except compass directions don't mean too much in Berlin these days. It's all in the name of the 'hood, and the sub 'hood or kiez - a particularly effective German word to describe a micro level neighbourhood centred around shops, bars, cafes and restaurants.

I used to live in Berlin, and I go back to visit my friends there whenever I can. It's such a dynamic city, always changing, always building. I studied at the Humboldt university, researching my dissertation on East German political identity after the fall of the wall. At the time Ostalgie was big - a nostalgia for East Germany, as it was. Goodbye Lenin had recently been on the screens, and many bars and restaurants were decked out in a kind of Soviet kitsch.

But always changing, Berlin's bar and restaurant scene is coming into its own. I'm going to do a short series of posts covering the exciting offerings in the different nabes.

Kreuzberg is one of my favourite districts - it's where my wonderful friend Elizabeth lives, which is where I stay in her apartment in an old jam factory with her excitable white alsatian, Pip. It's the Turkish heart of Berlin, and was an enclave of rebellion in the former West Berlin. It's still scruffy and rebellious, but it's increasingly home to some great restaurants and bars.

We visited Daniel Brühl (yes, he of Goodbye Lenin fame!)'s tapas bar, Bar Raval,  just opposite Kreuzber's Görlitzer Park. It's a big, open, informal affair, all high ceilings and open kitchens. We were there with another old friend, and a friend of Elizabeth's who runs Feast down the road in Neukölln - all proper foodies. 

The food was definitely a cut above. We had some very high quality classics - chorizo in cider, tortilla, jamon, manchego, padron peppers. 

 Some of the more interesting stuff including a spiced lamb tartare on bread with pear and caremalised onion - exquisitely combined, lightly battered aubergine stacks with honey, avocado and tomato tower, chicken and ham croquettes - the chicken was brown meat, oozing flavour, almost pungent.

We had so much food, cava, coffees and desserts, and the damage was 25Euro a head before tips. The service started off a little cool - at one point the waitress poked a bit of fun at me for taking photos of the dishes - I explained I keep a food blog. Suddenly the service defrosted, explanations were given (busy day yesterday) and free shots brought over. Ha! Don't let that put you off - Berlin isn't known for its service, but the tapas here is EXCELLENT. Reservations pretty much necessary on Friday and Saturday nights.

Mexican Food is getting big in Berlin - and there's a number of nice little taqueiras opening, crowding out the touristy tex mex. Last time I was in Berlin I went to Santa Maria (utterly excellent, also in Kreuzberg). This time we checked out Ta Cabron on Skalitzerstr.

The margaritas were excellent, as was the guacamole.

We both ordered the chocolatey chicken mole in a burrito. The chicken mole itself was delicious, but the burrito itself was not so well composed - it was more of a wrap, sour creme and salad served separately, and the other fillings lacked panache - not enough coriander, black beans, tasty salsa.

A top recommendation for drinking in Kreuzberg is the John Muir cocktail bar on Skalitzerstr. We went for a couple after dinner one night (cocktails are a big deal in Berlin), and wow - these were some of the most interesting cocktails I've ever had. John Muir has a monthly changing menu, changing with the seasons.

I had a Narcissist - gin, lime, creme de violet and ginger beer - it was fragrant, sweet and out of this world in a Willy Wonka kinda way. My other call was the Number of the Beast, priced 6.66, which had crushed blackberries and a bitter slice of liquorice, leaking into the cocktail like engine oil.

Friday, 19 October 2012

Running a business 101

I once read that the average life expectancy of a new restaurant is six weeks. I'm not surprised - I've seen some shockingly misconceived places pop up over the last few years.

Although I have absolutely zero experience at running a business, I think I'd do a much better job than some in coming up with a concept for a restaurant, cafe or food shop than many that I've seen open in the last few years. I am the ultimate armchair dragon - peeking in as I walk past and gasping with despair to friends afterwards. Never intervening.

But I do know a little bit about audiences, markets, insights and communications. And it is this process that seems too often to have been skipped over when a restaurant fails to succeed. There's a few mistakes that have really struck me:

Mis-reading your target demographic
I've seen this in a number of areas which have had a recent increase in middle class, disposable incomed populations. The pattern is such: a few pioneer cafes and restaurants open, they attract unprecedented demand, a few others join them and do well, and potential business owners step in to capitalise on the newly articulated market.

A recent example I've spotted is Twilight on Lower Clapton Road. LCR has seen some interesting new places open, including, most recently Dreyfus Cafe and Blue Tit hairdressers. They are both spacious, light and so so modern. Twilight looked like it could have been the makings of a Turkish Ocakbasi restaurant - grills, mezze etc. Instead it is selling paninis, bakes potatoes and fresh juices - all quite high margin products and priced highly for the area. The video on their website shows the decor and the menu, and you can't help but feel it's not hitting the market they thought they were targeting.

I could be proven wrong - and I'd like to be. I want local businesses to succeed. And they could be targeting a different demographic. But it feels like it could be a missed opportunity to bring something more interesting and with a bit more love to the area.

Entering a crowded market without a strong enough offer
Pasta Rustica on Newington Green Road opened in autumn 2011, with a slightly swanky interior - all leather seats and exposed brick. But specialising in pasta dishes, some pizza and then a random selection of steaks and grills. Just up the road was Trattoria Sapori - a great Italian cafe/resto with some of the best pizzas in the area, and a small selection of fancy pasta dishes.

Focusing on pasta is a risky move - my suspicion is that many wouldn't eat pasta out, knowing that you can make a nice pasta dish pretty easily at home, and that it's cheap meal. In a recession people won't want to eat food that is so clearly high margin.

Last time I cycled past Pasta Rustica, it was closed: boarded up, signs removed. It lasted less than a year.  I can't help but feel that if they'd done a better analysis of the local market, identified a gap and come up with a stronger, more distinct offer it might have had more success.

Not getting the communications right
Cynically, brand is important. It has to speak to the target market. Names like Pasta Rustica sound a little bit cheesy, and the look of a place matters too. But in competitive markets, where people can eat at one of many places vying for their businesses, you can't assume that people are just going to come to you because they've walked past or proactively googled your webpage. You need to get on their radar, get them interested, excited even.

Dreyfus Cafe did a great job of getting people excited in advance. They gave a story of their refurbishment of the premises on the Yeah! Hackney forum, built up anticipation. They launched a Twitter and Facebook page and tapped in to other local social media sites with lots of followers. And were overwhelmed with customers when they opened. They knew the channels their target market used and made sure that they were on people's radars.

But it all starts with understanding the demographic you are targeting, what they are willing to pay, how they get their information, what they go for. The age of social media means it is easier and cheaper to at least reach these people and get them excited.

That all sounds a bit commercial and marketing-speake, but it's the reality of the world we live in. If we want local businesses to do well we need to help them be savvier. So here's my offer: I'm no expert in running a business, but if you are thinking of opening a new food premises in E5 I would be more than happy to chat to you about your plan and share my thoughts! Please do get in touch - I want you to do well.

Monday, 8 October 2012

Hackney Croissant Watch #1

Weekend breakfast is important. It's the big thing that demarcates the week from the weekend, where breakfast is a leisurely and enjoyable pursuit, rather than just fuel to accompany the Today Programme while you try and wake up.

I love food rituals – the comfort of familiar tastes and sensations. When we lived in Newington Green we had on our doorstop (in the view of many) the best viennoiseries and green grocers for miles around – Le Belle Epoque and NewingtonGreen Fruit and Vegetables. So most weekends one of us would pop out to get some croissants and berries, while the other would get the coffee on.

The croissants at Le Belle Epoque were amazing. I have literally never had such good croissants as those ones, especially their weighty almond croissants – a veritable meal. But now that we've shifted two miles East, it's a bit of a schlepp that you don't want to do every weekend.

Over in E5, croissants aren't so much in the DNA of the area. But there is no shortage of cafes selling them, so I'll be charting my experiences eating my way through the neighbourhood's pastry options.

First up, the recently opened Dreyfus Cafe at the corner of Clapton Square and Lower Clapton Road. Dreyfus Cafe is describing itself as both a cafe and bakery – focusing in particular on the cuisine from around the Baltic Sea. I've also been following their setup and opening on twitter eagerly, and I know they have ambitions of baking their own croissants etc eventually.

For now, they are happy with their supplier – and I am too. We each had a plain croissant and a pain au chocolat – you could taste the quality of the butter and the flour, and were just the right denisty – nicely chewy, not too heavy; substantial. At £1.50 for a plain and £1.80 for chocolate, prices are a little higher than Le Belle Epoque – and not quite hitting that (admittedly VERY high) bar. But still very good, and we've already been back.

They hadn't ordered in almond croissants that day, and I cleared out their last four at about 10.30am. But it's early days and I look forward to sampling the almond next time they have them in.

Sunday, 7 October 2012

Peruvian in your backyard

At the start of the year, food pundits looking for 2012's big food trends in London were almost unanimous in tipping Peruvian food to be the big one. Openings of trendy restaurant/cocktail bars in Soho, Noho and (soon) Shoreditch happened, and the joys of pisco sours became better known. But for those who don't need exposed brick and industrial lights to enjoy good food, a good Peruvian option could be enjoyed without leaving North/East London.

Tierra Peru opened early in 2012 on a slightly forgotten strip of Essex Road, the main traffic artery connecting Islington with Stoke Newington, Dalston and Hackney. When I lived in Newington Green this was my main route into town – there were a few interesting looking places on Essex Road  but none ever looked too busy. Busy roads can be unforgiving places to hang out: the traffic discourages street life, the lack of street life discourages interesting cafe life.

But Tierra Peru is busy every night, with it's good value, generous portions of authentic Peruvian food. There are no nods to Lower East Side NYC in the décor here: it's all leather chairs, glossy surfaces, plasma TVs, slightly garish in a different cultural interpretation of 'stylish'. I'd always rather restaurants focused on good value food than instagram friendly interiors.

Ceviche is the big draw – fish and seafood marinaded in lime and chili, effectively curing it and making it edible without losing any of its freshness. Some of my friends were a bit sceptical about the thought, but the plate we ordered was hoovered up in no time. It came with cassava, crispy corn kernels and fried plantain. Mmmmm.

We also shared some potato in a cheese sauce – like the horribly synthetic nacho cheese ala Dorritos – but GOOD. Slithers of black olive and slices of hard boiled egg making for an interesting taste combination. That, and a chicken pastry with a salsa.

The main courses were meat and carb heavy – a couple of us plumped for seafood and rice options, the others had big bits of juicy meat on the bone, with croquettes and plantains. My seafood stew was good – full of fresh tasting seafood, chunky squid, plump mussels and juicy prawns. They didn't skimp on the good stuff and the flavours were nice, but it was less interesting than the first course.

The pisco sours were great – tangy, and frothy from the egg white whisked in.

I think if I was to go again, I would do it more tapas style, sharing a greater number of interesting starters and supping on more piscoes as I went along. But if you want to sample Peruvian cuisine without the queues and hype, and without leaving the 'hood, Tierra Peru is a good start.

Friday, 5 October 2012

Swedish tidings in Hackney

A joy of living Hackney is the constant change – there are always new bars, cafes, restaurants, shops and galleries opening. It is incredibly dynamic, and the frontiers of where interesting places open is being pushed all the time.

While Chatsworth Road in Lower Clapton and Hackney Central have seen a number of interesting openings over the last few years, just in the last month both a gallery and a fancy pizza place have opened on a previously 'untouched' (i.e. slightly grim) stretch of Upper Clapton Road, while the transient feeling Dalston Lane bit on the gyratory have seen a Spanish deli and Scandinavian furniture shop-cum-cafe open in recent months.

Understandably, the excitement for some has been labelled as sweeping gentrification by others. It's clearly a live issue – where an incoming middle class are highly visible in supping 'short blacks' and tucking into open sourdough sandwiches, many live in abject poverty. There is hardly a 'middle' in Hackney, and the worry is that cafes and boutiques will take over and make the long-standing population feel more excluded.

I completely share those concerns, but am sceptical that the process will ever be all consuming – Hackney has one of the highest proportions of social housing in the country, which puts a structural stop on full-on middle class domination. The worry is that the divide therefore becomes more extreme. My personal view – as someone who spends their working days campaigning to make housing accessible and affordable for everyone – is that Hackney Council must ensure they build affordable homes for people on low and middle incomes to ensure that the next generation has a future here too. Not an easy sell, but other councils are finding creative ways of getting lots of affordable homes built.


That said, I do enjoy frequenting my excellent local cafes (alongside pound shops, convenience stores, Percy Ingles and take-aways!) and would say many are worth making your way over for. A particular favourite at the moment is Cooper and Wolf, a Swedish cafe on Chatsworth Road as it meets Millfields Park.

Cooper and Wolf opened at the beginning of July, and within a week it was packed with brunching and lunching locals like it filled a massive void that nobody (apart from the canny owners) knew existed. I've been three times since then, eagerly showing it off to friends ('look what *I*have at the end of my road!').

The menu includes a range of sizes of savoury dishes – cold open sandwiches, filling and interesting salads, and warming potato-based dishes, freshly baked sweet treats, exceptionally well made Caravan coffees, and lots of fruit juices.

The meatball open sandwich was my first choice – served cold, and to grandma's recipe – the balls were properly meaty and subtly seasoned, served on top of a beetroot and apple salad and lavishly topped with fresh chives.

The most brunchy option is fried potatoes (with or without bacon) and topped with one of the healthiest, yellowest eggs you've seen. That one comes with a bit of beetroot and lightly pickled cucumber- wonderfully fresh.

My favourite dish so far has been the potato pancake with their wonderful, locally smoked salmon by Hansen and Lydersen. The salmon was just amazing, so fresh tasting, clearly high quality and generous in portion. The pancake was very substantial, and topped with crème fraiche, lemon and lots of dill (a favourite herb) it was one of the best brunch dishes I've had. Ever.

I also loved their chicken, bacon and avocado salad – full of fresh herbs and with a remoulade to make it all a little less virtuous.

When it comes to sweet stuff, their cinnamon buns are to die for – especially when they are warm and fresh out the oven. Be warned: they go quickly. The folk running Cooper and Wolf sometimes tweet when they're out the oven – a reason, if there ever was one, to be hooked on twitter.

I think prices are reasonable for the quality - £6 - £9 is the range, but you can save 10% on everything with a Chatsworth Road Traders and Residents' Association – which only costs £1. You can sign up at the stall at the market on Sundays.

Wednesday, 26 September 2012


Would you believe me if I said the tastiest pizza in London was...within (literal) spitting distance of the Olympic Park? Or surrounded by desolate streets and light industrial warehouses? And the nearest shop is probably Screwfix?

Tastiest pizza in London is a bold claim. So, a caveat: tastiest, not most authentic.

So where? At the Crate Brewery in Hackney Wick. At the edge of all things. I have an emerging theory that the best places in London are the places which are hardest to reach. That's where the vibe is the most laid back, away from the hustle and bustle of back-to-back diaries enabled by rapid mass-transport systems.

Crate Brewery is at a quiet bit of the Lea Valley, right by the water - only a few joggers or walkers go past on the other side, and you've entered from the other side through a maze of industrial streets and then a car park. The perimeter of the Olympic park is right there - complete with at least nine security cameras that we could see.

Picture the scene: it's a sunny September evening, a mixture of families, older singles and young arty types are set on communal picnic benches by the canal. Lots of interesting, deep colours of beer from their onsite microbrewery are being brought out, every now and then a couple of big pizzas are artfully presented, wafting delicious smells through the air.

Between us we ordered three pizzas - but I basically had a whole one to myself. And it was the tastiest pizza I've had in London. It was topped with griddled courgette, red onion, feta cheese and gremolata. The base was great - thin, but not too crispy, robust enough to hold the dense topping. The flavour combination on the topping was king - the courgette, red onion and feta are natural partners, but the inclusion of the gremolata was what really elevated the pizza - so fresh and zesty and complementing the other ingredients perfectly.

Our other pizzas included a Margherita - simple, but done well with a smattering of halved cherry tomatoes on top, and a more exciting one topped with thinly sliced potato, truffle oil and sage. It was another great combination - much subtler, but absolutely luxurious.

I've barely even mentioned the beer, which is another big selling point about Crate Brewery. As the name suggests, there is an onsite microbrewery, making a range of ales and lagers, which were smooth and delicious. A decent selection of other interesting ales and lagers were on tap, and a yet wider selection were in bottles.

Crate Brewery is all in all a great find for a laid back beer and pizza, away from the madding crowd. For those not in the East, I'd say it's worth the journey. Otherwise, get on your bike and get stuck in.

Sunday, 16 September 2012

Who can you trust? Vietnamese restaurants in Hackney

What do you make of 'Trip Advisor' style reviews of restaurants? Have you ever been tempted to go somewhere but put off by patchy customer reviews?

I have. I eat out a fair bit (obvs) and when researching my options I'll find myself trawling comments on Time Out, google reviews or London Eating to reassure myself that somewhere is worth going to. So few places get all out good reviews - and I started to notice patterns of negativity. If it's a hyped, trendy place most of the reviews will be moaning about the waiting time, disappointment that their gourmet fried chicken wasn't more WOW ('s fried chicken, there's only so much you can do to jazz it up). If it's a cheap ethnic eat, commentators will moan about the decor and the slow or chaotic service. If people are in a big group, they'll moan about getting treated like a leper colony and sat separately with an edited menu.

There's a fair number of people whose expectations are way off, who are particularly fussy, or who think the world owes their group of 20 diners a full a la carte menu all served at EXACTLY THE SAME TIME. And it turns out they are all much more likely to write moany reviews on comment sites.

My point? Researching is perfectly sensible, but find a reviewer, blogger or friend whose opinion you trust and go with a good recommendation. Ignore the haters.


The Huong-Viet canteen on Englefield Road (De Beavouir Town/Dalston) is a place I'd been encouraged to go to by trusted friends, but discouraged by anonymous reviewers. I finally visited last night and it confirmed my thesis - my trusted friend was totally right, it kicked the arses of the Vietnamese canteens further down Kingsland Road.

Huong Viet is set back from the road in a scruffy looking former bathhouse. If you walked past during the day you wouldn't notice it. Inside it's cosily lit for a canteen-y restaurant and a more intimate buzz than its cousins down in Shoreditch. There's a localish vibe, but a nice cross-section of families, older couples, young professionals, as well as the ubiquitous bearded hipsters.

We shared a selection of starters. Dim-sum like steamed vegetable rolls...they came topped with crispy garlic and a fresh leaf salad. They were tastier than your standard veg rolls and a nice halfway house between  summer (raw) and fried. The fish cakes had a wonderful chewy texture and slightly smoky taste. I hadn't had Vietnamese versions before, but they are more interesting than most of the Thai versions I've had before.

The highlight of the starters was their fried squid. It came lightly battered, and the squid pieces were really fresh, chunky and properly meaty. They didn't taste previously frozen - and if they were, it was far better than the chewy, plasticky type you often get.They were topped with crispy chillies and lemon grass, that was perfectly salty and moreish. There was barely a crumb left on the plate.

For mains I had roasted pork and aubergine in a light sauce - it was really good, with decent portions of both ingredients. The sauce was interesting too - quite a lot of dill, which was a surprise, but it's a great herb and went well. Lots of fresh ginger making it really zesty and zingy. My friends shared a sea bass fillet and some vegetables, which came in a really nice nutty sauce.

One of the main complaints by citizen reviewers was the service, but we found it to be relaxed, friendly and efficient. There was one minor slip up - the vegetables came instead of a tofu dish, but it was so delicious (and not too far off) that my friends didn't mind in the slightest. With a drink each, it came to just over £16 with service - very good value in my books. If you were thinking of going - GO! If not - still go. It's a great restaurant and I'm sure you won't be disappointed.

Refreshed and repurposed

I've been writing a food blog for more than three years now. But over the last year in particular updates have been few and far between. It's been a busy few years - doing a part time Masters while working full time, a busy full time job (with lots of writing!), and then buying and doing up a flat. I've not been able to give it as much attention as I'd have liked, but I've also found the remit too broad.

Now that I'm settled in my new neighbourhood for the long term everything makes a bit more sense. I'm now living in Lower Clapton, a lovely enclave just north east of the centre of Hackney. The area is brimming with excitement - new restaurants and cafes opening all the time, a bustling bohemian Sunday market, as well as a rich history of waves of immigration bringing with it delicious, authentic and affordable eats from across the world. I've said to friends that I could probably do a blog a week about foodie happenings around here for at least a year without scraping the barrel.

I'm fascinated by the fabric of cities, how they fit together, how people live in them, what makes people decide to live where they do. In the nine years I've lived in London as an adult I've lived in areas across the north east zone two band - Dartmouth Park, Tufnell Park, Holloway, Newington Green and now Clapton, and I swear this chunk of our sweeping metropolis is the best bit. When I'm cycling back from a dinner in town it is the greatest pleasure to hit Clerkenwell and know that I'm back on The Axis.

London in itself as a focus is too wide, so I am now repurposing this blog as North East Eats, celebrating the best restaurants, shops and happenings of this part of London. That's not to say that I will be turning a blind eye to stuff happening elsewhere, or not raving about an amazing place because it's on the Wrong Side of Hampstead Heath. A more defined focus will allow me to guilt-free eat my way through Hackney and the surrounding boroughs, knowing that there are lots of people round here that might benefit from a bit more info about all the exciting options on their doorstep.

Bear with me while I get my blogging mojo back - I promise you more focused, more frequent, more food.

Monday, 9 July 2012

Secret Stockwell Portuguese

Eating out in London can be pricey business – especially if you want quality food, plentiful quantities and nice wine. That's why Time Out's Cheap Eats section is so popular, people queue for hours, sometimes, for some bargainous and delicious lamb chops at Tayyabs. So if I told you about a basement Portuguese restaurant would do you the biggest meal you could imagine, meat, salad, sides, and lots of glorious red wine for £17, you'd think I was pulling your leg, right?

Well, I'm not, but it's so good I'm not going to broadcast here for the googles. I'll tell you about how excellent it is and get in touch if you want the details.

First up, like most cheap eats, don't bother if you want flashy décor, starched tabe cloths and subtle service. We're talking the basement of a shop on a main road in Stockwell. It's canteen like, paper table cloths, charmingly shabby and folksy, and, as is quite traditional for your workaday Portuguese joint, television mounted to the ceiling and on. But unlike many of London's cheap eats, you won't be rushed, table turned and the service is warm and generous.

I was running late so I didn't see whether there was a menu. I suspect there wasn't, and my friend Moira, who lives around the corner and whose Portuguese friends introduced her to the joint, just spoke to the waiter and he said what was available that day. Standard portuguese fare is quite simple – focused on meat, fish, potatoes and greens, all delicious for its freshness and the quality of the olive oil used.

The spread we ordered, between the seven of us, involved two plates of chips, a MASSIVE plate of salad, deep fried madeiran maize and herb cakes – bit like polenta, two sea bass and two hefty long skewers of flavoursome chunks of lamb which had been grilled.

The lamb hung on skewers from the ceiling and the waiter stuck a piece of bread at the bottom of the skewer to soak up all the meat's juice. The lamb was medium rare, but crispy and charred on the outside and so succulent, and just simply seasoned in salt and pepper and maybe a bit of paprika and garlic. It reminded me of distant memories of barbecues with family friends in Portugal, all that smoke and delicious meat.

The fish was, true to form, amazingly fresh. Just plainly presented with lemon, it was perfect with chips and salad. I've had so many meals in Portugal as simple as that, sat by the Atlantic and eating fish fresh out of it. This was up there with the best, although I'd have paid a bit more to be transported to having a seaview in Sesimbra.

There were no puddings, but when we asked about the other food they served, the waiter brought us a bowl of pearl barley soup to give us a taste of what else they did. And the wine was just astounding for the price. Even if I wasn't half Portuguese I'd still say Portuguese wine is some of the best in the world, once you've steered away from the Mateus Rose. Our red was bold and rich, and the quality surprised by not-yet-induced-into-the-world-of-Portuguese-wine-friends - we got through a good four bottles of it.

So yes, all that for £17 a head between the seven of us. I challenge you to find better value high quality food and wine in London. So if you're keen to go yourself, drop me a line on robbie(dot)desantos(at)gmail(dot)com