BOCCA DI LUPO HAS HEART – AND LUNGS, AND KIDNEY IN ITS ‘CORATELLA’ – BUT SOME TECHNICAL ISSUES TOO
So to lunch at Bocca Di Lupo, the busy Italian Soho diner serving up plates of regional cooking from London-born Jacob Kenedy and Victor Hugo.
I’ve long been trying to get in here over the six years it’s been open, but evening walk-ins have failed dismally, such is its popularity.
However an interesting tale lies in how a table became available at last – and for five people no less. First off, I called in the morning and spoke to the male receptionist who said they had nothing.
But had I also emailed the reception manager from work. Perhaps it was because she saw the Great Pulteney Street address and wanted to keep locals happy, or maybe because of the back-story – I was eating with the family following an audition for my daughter at the Royal Ballet – she came back immediately. And with a table to boot. Hmmm…
The bustling professionalism of Bocca immediately impresses: the bar at the front where business folk perch before rushing back to create ever-longer spreadsheets. Or the regular tables are at the rear, a warm-coloured space with a good, chatty vibe. It does feel a little shut off and slightly dark, but a attentive US waitress coped with our desire for lots of small dishes and two young girls who shouted a lot!
A plate of buffalo mozzarella arrived with soft, billowing pillows of the white cheese, beautifully milky with a slight acidic tang. Not as good as buying from the roadside in Campania or Lazio of course, and my daughter didn’t like the grassy olive oil on top, but delicious for the adults who had a bonus dish!
Coratella, the traditional dish from Rome using lamb heart, liver, kidneys and lungs was served with artichokes & spring onions and was hearty but not heavy or sour – artichoke really is a fabulous combination with offal.
Ricotta ravioli with burnt walnut pesto was another punchy dish, but this wasn’t loose enough: the pasta cooking liquid had been over-reduced so that the pesto was slightly dry and the pasta not shown to its best effect.
But the highlight was jumping over to their ‘Gelupo’ bar across the road for high quality Italian-style ice cream. The kids loved the exceptionally smooth, light but softly creamy portions, and I tucked into a fabulous, rich, cool butterscotch with cone.
So 6 out of 10: the food wasn’t quite what I expected it would be from a chef who trained at Moro and Boulevard in San Francisco, but it has a great vibe, and the staff dealt exceptionally well with our loud, shouty table!
DABBOUS DELIVERS DESPITE THE DELAY, WITH A TWIST ON NOMA
Lunch at a place I’ve long wanted to visit, Ollie Dabbous’ much-lauded W1 venue. Given the five stars by Fay Maschler, and the ultimate accolade from Giles Coren: “They are going to hold down the chef here and stuff him with Michelin stars like a Périgord goose”, it was a must-visit, but until now impossible to enter.
We managed to snag a table at 1.45 on the 29th finally, sneaking in as many of the expense account holders were returning to their desks. The rough-hewed industrial feel is as billed, but still a surprise for a restaurant at this level, and with this clientele. The wealthy diners seem out of place, not quite slumming it, but something slightly jars. The best way I can put it is that the seats seem to small for people – perhaps their egos don’t quite fit?
But onto the nourishing seeded bread, warm, with a thick crust and almost milky softness to its taste and texture, presented in a brown paper bag. It’s a gimmicky touch with a purpose – to keep the bread warm. The butter is cream they’ve whipped up themselves, and very tasty.
Next a compilation of allium – poached red onion, white onion and slivers of curled spring onion, sat in a pine-flavoured broth with basil oil. The flavours were startling, but it didn’t match my need for solidity of ingredient at this point.
Anna had beautifully cooked asparagus coated in a thin film of mayonnaise made with rapeseed oil, plus a pile of crunchy hazelnut pieces, and cream made from meadowsweet. The foraging begins! With a plant that kind of resembles cow parsley or elderflower – the fronds are used to give a subtle almond flavour.
Coddled egg mixed egg with smoked butter and pieces of mushroom for a rich punch of flavour that came just in time after the symphony of allium! Shame the straw wasn’t edible – I reckon everything on the plate should be.
Then onto mains, with an outstanding combination of bitter, savoury and sour that you wouldn’t expect from a dish billed as ‘Pulled Veal with Summer Truffles and Asparagus’. Layers of shaved truffle gave way to shavings of barely cooked white fronds, then melting, slow cooked veal (brilliant because rarely done with this meat as opposed to, say, shoulder of lamb or brisket of beef). Underneath that was buttery spinach and pea shoots. Uncovering each layer made for a joyous sense of discovery.
Anna’s mackerel main wasn’t quite the same event, with more powerful rather than subtle flavours. But mayonnaise made with oyster rather than egg yolk (they kind of look the same!) was clever with a briny deliciousness, and some tasty heritage beetroot lifted the dish.
Then came a grade A pudding, whole coconut topped with soft coconut cream, coconut ice cream and finally, at the base, crunchy coconut flapjack. Again the excitement of uncovering the layers!
Plus a delicious array of wild strawberries atop burrata (mozzarella and cream) with soft poached strawberries underneath and cabbage flowers, plus basil and tarragon leaf scattered on top, plus yellow dots of fennel pollen (too early for that, surely?)
Service was pleasant enough, with a touch of the Scandinavian among the staff as well as on the plate, although being asked three times if I wanted a drink before my wife arrived showed a lack of communication. They also had to check with the kitchen on ingredients a number of times. It seemed as if…how shall I put this? Well, as if they had been celebrating something the night before.
Surmising aside, set lunch for under £80 for two including a glass of Fritz Haag’s 2012 Riesling from the Mosel is great value for cooking of this quality. And you can see the influence of Ollie’s time at Noma with foraged ingredients and haute twists on subtle flavours that don’t just rely on southern Europe for their punch. Although the menu is not billing itself as locally sourced – the coconut springs to mind – and pushes seasonality to the limits (wild strawberries in late April), you can feel a sensitivity towards ingredients that lingers.
7.5/10 (slightly down because of wild strawberries in April and fennel pollen!)
EMIL ÅRENG FORAGES IN THE NORTHERN FORESTS OF SWEDEN – THE FILM
You’ve seen the stills; you’ve read all about it…
…now here’s the film itself!
We were so moved by the feeling for foraging that bartender Emil Åreng displayed as he talked about his first love.
He’d grown up digging around for mushrooms, sorrel and berries amidst the streams, rocky outcrops and undergrowth of the area.
The surroundings also struck us profoundly: a vast forest floor filled with moss, under pine trees that seemed to reach for the sky. It felt untouched by man.
I hope this film conveys that, as well as Emil’s profound technical excellent in mixed drinks. The end result was for sure a very delicious and unusual cocktail!
So enjoy this snapshot of the scenery and beauty of northern Sweden, as well as the great man that is Emil Åreng.
Creds also go to Martin for his camerawork, and Sven for his sound, both at Lampray in Umeå.
So visiting the northern parts of Sweden to make a film about foraging for ingredients in the forests, we had to eat sometime!
We took to this restaurant one evening, which is the home to our barman star of the film, Emil Åreng.
Called Rex Bar & Grill, it is bang in the middle of the large town of Umeå, which itself hugs the north eastern coastline of Sweden, facing across to Finland if you follow the river for a few more miles.
Taking an early meal, because there was a conference in town, and we wanted to beat the rush, we had this old-fashioned, wood-panelled restaurant all to ourselves.
Considered the finest restaurant in the town, it feels elegant but not stuffy, with some slightly odd design touches, however. One of those was an old, classic motorbike hanging precariously over the door. The other was rows of Red Bull cans viewable behind the bar. Both seemed out of kilter when you’re paying £180 for a meal for two.
The service from our waiter was spot on, however. A Norwegian by birth, he had moved to Umeå 15 years, and had the enthusiasm of someone who clearly loved where he lived.
We kicked off with local fish roe, which he enthused about at length. Orange in colour, it had subtle fishiness and salt-tinged, but without quite the richness of caviar. They were served with delicious local crackers Huså-Knäcke that had an oaty savour and great snap (not in the picture), sour cream and soft toast.
Next onto some deeply red, rich reindeer meat from local herds. As with any venison, it’s hard to cook this meat without drying out, but there was a slightly pink middle which kept the moisture. It went beautifully with the locally sourced chanterelles (see my previous blog), wonderfully sweet chunks of parsnip and puréed potatoes.
Finally, some own-made vanilla ice cream, with delicious soft, sweet local cloudberries that have a green-tinged colour and tart flavour like gooseberries, but with a floral edge as well that’s all their own. Apparently kids round here grow up eating these as a treat – and that’s how they seemed to us!
So a great example of Swedish food, served in a haute cuisine fashion in a restaurant with warmth and a sense of history.
THE SOIL ASSOCIATION’S 67TH ANNUAL CONFERENCE GOES EASY ON THE ORGANIC
With organic sales climbing back as recession eases, and a number of food scares mean that people are searching out more apparently reliable food production methods, now more than ever you’d think that the Soil Association would be pushing organic.
But with chief executive Helen Browning at the helm, the approach is slightly different…
…As I found out attending the first day and AGM at the organisation’s annual conference last month.
Held bang in the heart of Westminster, at the impressive Central Hall, opposite the Cathedral, it was with a sense of curious anticipation that I entered the main auditorium.
This was heightened by the enormous pipe organ behind the stage – this was a Methodist place of worship after all. You can see the instrument in all it’s glory in the picture above! Also the fact that we were seated at tables for the talks, rather like an award ceremony.
But also, thirdly, there was the approach. It was very much, ‘organic where possible’. I wonder what Soil Association founder Lady Eve Balfour would have made of this.
Celebrated TV and former Observer newspaper columnist Monty Don kicked off the day, as Soil Association president. He gave a great call to arms: “It’s all about how we care for our lovely, sweet earth. Everything beings there,” he insisted.
However, Monty was on message too: “It’s easy to hit out against overproduction of food or GM. But we want to be known what we’re for, not just what we’re against,” he added.
As another speaker that followed, Tom Andrews, of Sustainable Food Cities said: “Organic is the hardest sell. It runs fresh, then local, then seasonal, and finally organic.”
One delegate, a local authority key worker, agreed. According to her, the whole thing was “very middle class”. But this was illuminating – there were many local authorities members in attendance. So to be ‘as good as possible’ rather than ‘100% organic’ makes sense. Helen Browning wanted to promote the Soil Association in the best light.
However, a few speeches came across as a pure exercise in PR, rather than genuine engagement with the issues. Professor Kevin Fenton, the national director for Public Health England was a good example of this, reading as if from a script that had been delivered to public bodies many times.
Where former Independent on Sunday editor, now Chair of the London Food Board, Rosie Boycott did actually test the audience for their views – each table discussed for 20 minutes, after she had called for solutions to food poverty, none of this was reported back to the stage.
But there were some great messages too. Food 4 Life is doing amazingly well, with 750,000 meals served every day around the UK. There are great stories, such as Jim Kitchen’s work as chair of the Belfast Food Network. And as Monty Don said at the AGM in late afternoon: “It’s not about lowering the bar. Having a schools with 40% of its food as organic is an incredible situation, and if the country could do that as a whole it would be a triumph beyond our wildest dreams”.
So I’ll keep my membership, and I love this organisation, but more questioning around the place of organics in the Soil Association’s work is required.
SEA BASS, COCKLES, SHRIMPS AND SAMPHIRE BY MARK HIX AND MEEK & WILD
I tried this Mark Hix recipe out recently, and it was a cracker. It reminded me of his crab salad – British ingredients all together in an amazing, sweet-tasting and soft-textured combination.
But it’s also typical Hix in that once upon a time the ingredients would once have been easy to source if you lived close or close-ish to the sea. British waters have shrimps and cockles in abundance and the many marshy inlets are covered for many months of the year in green swathes of samphire.
However in the modern day shopping world, cockles are almost non-existent, replaced by many a fishmonger with clams (from France), which they can charge more money for. Meanwhile instead of shrimps there are often large prawns from Madagascar in their place.
It’s often easier buying Chilean/Israeli/Australian than it is British. So putting all this together was quite a task.
However, I managed it thanks to the great fishmonger that is Meek & Wild, new-ish to Highbury Barn.
The main guy who works there is knowledgeable and was on my wavelength. In other words, he understood my slightly mad craving for British ingredients above all else. And he helped put together this fine dish, including a silvery-fresh sea bass from Cornwall.
The only downside was the price of the cockles, at £5 for around 300g, which is edging towards clam territory. The samphire was also two large handfuls for £4 – not cheap. But £12 for the bass and £2.50 for a pot of shrimps was reasonable. £23.50 for a meal for two equals expensive, but worth it!
A final word on samphire: it’s at an end now; a few weeks’ ago the pieces I took were slightly woody and bitter, but the bitterness disappeared on cooking and the woodiness softened. So have faith – and have a go at this truly wondrous dish.
Fillet of sea bass with samphire, shrimps and cockles
4 sea bass fillet portions, each weighing 150-160g, skin on, scaled and boned
A good knob of butter
3tbsp dry white wine
100g samphire, woody stalks trimmed, or chopped baby leeks
60g cooked shrimps, peeled or whole
Salt and freshly ground white pepper
Method (words by Mark Hix)
Cockles tend to contain a lot of grit in their ribbed shells, so immerse them in a bowl of cold water for 30 minutes and agitate them every so often with your hands to dislodge it. Then rinse under cold running water for 10 minutes and drain.
Pre-heat the oven to 200C/gas 6. Season the sea bass fillets, then put them in an ovenproof dish and rub each fillet with butter. Cover with greaseproof paper and cook in the oven for 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, put the white wine in a saucepan with the cockles and samphire (or baby leeks), season, cover and cook on a medium heat for 2-3 minutes, or until the cockles are all opened.
Add the shrimps and any cooking liquid from the sea bass and stir well.
To serve, put the sea bass fillets on warmed serving plates and spoon the cockles, shrimps and samphire over, with the cooking liquid.