Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Norfolk Arms, Bloomsbury

Two frustrations about eating out in London: it's hard to find proper rustic good tapas that is cheap like it should be; the dearth of decent places to eat in Bloomsbury, an otherwise lovely part of town.

The Norfolk Arms in Bloomsbury is the answer to both these prayers. I went there with some old friends a few weeks back and enjoyed a tasty array of classic/interesting tapas, good wine, friendly service and a bustling atmosphere.

We enjoyed some deliciously citrussy salt cod croquette balls, quality chorizo in red wine, and some paprika marinaded and fried crispy pork belly bits - they were something else, and every bit of their remnants was mopped up by the delicious bread.

We also feasted on tomatoey baked butter beans - great texture and flavour, and blue cheese with walnuts and honey on bread. I'm not usually a fan of blue, but it went perfectly with this combination of tastes.

Other highlights included a well-done staple of batatas bravas (with spicy tomato and mayonnaise), mariaded artichoke hearts, caperberries (very pungent), and courgette stuffed with cous cous, sultanas, sweet potatoes and topped with greek yoghurt. I like a bit of Levantine slipping into my tapas.

We were all drawn to the Norfolk Arms because we were lusting after Manzanilla, but ended up sinking those and three bottles of red between the five of us too. With all that food, the sherry, the wine, and tips, it came to £26 a head.

Sometimes the Norfolk Arms operates a two hour policy on tables, but they didn't need to turn us, so we had the table for a jolly four hours. All the way through, the waiting staff were friendly, attentive and low key.

So if you were ever looking for some nice, authentically spiced and priced tapas, or found yourself hungry in Bloomsbury, the Norfolk Arms could be a great choice for you.

Thursday, 23 May 2013

White Rabbit, Dalston

Dalston's transformation has been widely reported. Italian Vogue's 2009 pronouncement that Dalston is the coolest place in the world has almost become mythical - was that even said? Is it a truism? By now you can barely move for churnalism-tinged articles depicting the rise of Dalston, its hipster population, and where they like to hang out.

I preferred Dalston a few years ago, and I know how cliched that sounds. It's mostly too much for me now, especially at the weekend. I used to like it when it was only a few sketchy basement bars and source of the finest Turkish kebab this side of the Med. But the snazzification has some benefits, particularly a growing crop of innovative, tasty new restaurants.

Rita's at Birthdays grabbed the most attention, but relatively recent openee White Rabbit, Bradbury Street, is certainly worth a visit.

White Rabbit's focus is on sharing plates. If you were speaking Spanish, their dishes are somewhere between tapa and racion size. (I can imagine my friend laughing despairingly at my attention to plate-size practices of restaurants).The inspiration is eclectic: nods to modern, seasonal British, to the Iberian peninsula, and to the Middle East. The menu is organised by cooking method - grill, stove, .

We were recommended to order three dishes per person, but two per person plus bread and waffles more than sufficed. The dishes were brought out tapa style - staggered over the course of the meal. I wish more plate restaurants would do that, allowing the diners to savour a smaller number dishes at one time.

We kicked off with mussels served with baby leeks, wild garlic flowers and leek oil -which tasted like an intense, condensed leek. Really nice.

Pork scratchings were sweet and salty, and the bread came with whipped butter served on a stone. My mischievous friend asked whether they get a fresh stone for each serving: they don't - they wash them between each usage.

Next came artichokes (jerusalem) three ways: puréed with truffle oil, sautéed  and then their crispy skins. Topped with green parsley dish, this was an exceptionally delicious dish, and the simplicity of the ingredients meant you could focus on just how tasty jerusalem artichokes are.

We had pan fried hake, with pea puree and dumplings. This dish was just bursting with the taste of spring: so, so fresh.

Waffles were less Americana, more imagine what would happen if you homemade potato waffles and then deep fried them like crisps. Good for lapping up all the tasty sauces.

Lamb belly came atop puréed baba ganoush, topped with baby leeks and radishes. My friends found the lamb belly a bit too pungent, but I thought it worked well with the strong flavours of the (raw) leeks and radishes and the smoky purée.

A real highlight was a baked aubergine, topped with honeycomb, leaves and pomegranate seeds, and served next to thick yoghurt with ash on top. The flavours combined magically.

Another highlight for me was the Iberico pork with migas and pancetta. Migas is a popular dish in the Alentejo region of Portugal, and is basically flavoured bread. Here, the bits of bread were flavoured with the finest chorizo juices, combining deliciously with the coriander and pancetta. This took me right back to the Alentejo.

Finally, we shared black pudding with duck egg and asparagus, and a selection of mushrooms with fried courgette and red amaranth It was top quality black pudding, and the mushrooms were perfectly cooked.

In the spirit of sharing, and having eaten so much already, we shared desserts too. A salted caramel doughnut served with crispy popcorn bits and mascrapone was excellent, even when split four ways. Chocolate ganache came warm on top of a bowl of malty chocolate crumbs, tasting like a deconstructed mississipi mud pie.

An absolutely epic meal, inventive seasonal cooking, served in a completely relaxed unpretentious setting. Coming in at £28 including a drink and tips, it felt like really good value for the quality and quantity.