Wednesday, December 28, 2005

What Do You Have for Christmas?

The title of this entry will be, I dare say, familiar to all veggies.

If I'm feeling a bit mischievous, then I'll answer "Anything I like. What about you, stuck with the same old turkey again?" I always like to point out that, as a vegetarian, in the run up to Christmas I'll have several different menus at the various Christmas ' do's' that one gets invited to, while most meat-eaters will have had the same dish of roast turkey et al several times by the time that they sit down at the table on Christmas day to the same dish, once again.

Don't get me wrong, I love all the other accoutrements of Chrimble-din - roast potatoes, sprouts, stuffing etc - so I do tend to try and find something that will go with the aforementioned vegetables. Eating a lasagne or mushroom stroganoff just doesn't appeal to me.

I tend to shy away from a standard nut roast or a manufactured meat substitute like a Quorn roast, probably because I see that as the easy option.

Last year I made Delia's parsnip roulade, the year before was chestnut bourgignon pie I believe. Before that, my memory is a blur.

For my first veggie Christmas, sometime in the mid 90's, I made a stuffed meatless loaf using the recipe from Linda McCartney's Home Cooking book. This year, I decided to revisit it. It's easy to make - it's just a mixture of several types of soya based meat substitutes mixed up and baked. It's a bit time consuming as you have to start cooking it the night before, then stuff it and finish cooking it the next day.

But it's very tasty, and goes well with gravy and vegetables. It is also very nice cold with pickles and bubble & squeak ( a Boxing Day tradition in my family) and if there's still some left over, you can chop it up and throw it in a curry. A true Christmas turkey substitute if I ever saw one!

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Carluccio's Caffe, London

Carluccio's Caffe
8 Market Place,
London W1W 8AG

Tel: 020 7636 2228

Carluccio's Caffes are my favourite chain of restaurants. I've been to a few different ones now, and there are always plenty of vegetarian options on the menu and they are really tasty.

On Sunday, we braved the crowds to go Christmas shopping in Oxford Street. Market Square is just around the back of Selfridges, so when I found out there was a Carluccio's there it made the choice of lunch a no-brainer.

The restaurant itself is on two floors, one of which is a basement. We sat in the basement part so it didn't feel quite so airy as the other Caffes I've been to. That aside, the service was good and the food as tasty as ever.

On their Autumn/Winter menu there are seven meat-free main courses, which is pretty good for any restaurant that doesn't specialise in non meat dishes. Many of the dishes were on previous menus (Penne Giardiniera - penne with courgette, chilli and deep fried spinach balls is a special favourite of mine) but today I fancied something warming and filling.

I ordered a Pasta e Fagioli soup (thick soup of pasta, creamy borlotti beans and vegetables
drizzled with extra virgin olive oil
) followed by Lasagnetta con Porcini (a vegetarian baked lasagna with layers of porcini mushrooms and béchamel sauce.)

To be honest, the soup would've been enough for me - it came in a fairly large bowl, so there was plenty of it and it was accompanied by a huge 'slab' of gourgeous bread. The soup itself was thick, full of beans, tasty and very filling.

My eyes always seem to automatically skip over any lasagne dish on a menu - I guess that's just too many veggie lasagnes when I first turned vegetarian - so I was particularly pleased that I'd picked this one.

The dish wasn't huge - which given the soup was just as well in these circumstances - but it wasn't small either. Layers of mushrooms, which looked like a mix of porcini and chestnut, covered in white sauce and cheese were interspersed between pasta sheets. It tasted great. Had I made it, I would probably have added a tomato sauce in an effort to be 'traditional' but this would have spoiled it. The cheese and white sauce were enough to give substance to the lasagne without taking away for the flavour of the mushrooms.

While we were there, people were finishing off the last of the items on the Breakfast Menu. I think that an early morning visit to one of Carluccio's Caffes might not be far away.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Cafe Paradiso, Cork

Cafe Paradiso
16 Lancaster Quay,
Cork City, Ireland

Tel: +353 21 4277 939

We spent the last weekend in Cork, Ireland. My primary reason for going was to visit the Cafe Paradiso. I've had the cookbook for a while, and I wanted to try the restaurant to see if the food was as good as the recipes sounded. When Ryan Air offered free flights there, we jumped at the chance to go and explore the fantastic countryside and sample Dennis Cotter's food.

After visiting Blarney Castle and kissing the Blarney Stone (well you have to do these things don't you?) we lunched at a restaurant called the Lemon Tree, just outside the castle grounds. The menu didn't look that veggie friendly from the outside, and I was preparing to have a salad when I was pleasantly surprised to find a rather tasty dish on the specials board.

The dish consisted of a pepper stuffed with pumpkin on noodles with a sweet chilli sauce which was quite tasty. My wife had the Irish stew, which she said was really nice. So, if you're looking for a decent lunch in Blarney, the Lemon Tree definitely worth investigating.

So, onto the main review - the Cafe Paradiso.

The restaurant itself is quite compact and cosy. It has a sort of Mediterranean feel to it with its 'random' decor of decoupage and postage stamps and it was very full.

I started with grilled portobello mushroom with cheese, pecan crumbs & sage and smoked paprika aioli which was nice, but the cheese tended to overpower the flavour of the rest of the ingredients. The aioli was very tasty on its own and did tend to calm the cheese down a bit when it was eaten with the rest of the dish. My wife had vegetable sushi with pickled ginger, wasabi and a dipping sauce and tempura of aubergine & cauliflower. We swapped each dish halfway through so that we could both taste the food. The sushi was very nice and somehow they'd managed to make the tempura tender and grease-free. It was very good indeed.

For the main course I had braised timbale of chard, roasted aubergine, puy lentils & cheese, with braised salsify, tarragon cream and pumpkin gnocchi and my wife had leek pancakes with plum tomato, caper & avocado salsa, braised fennel and mustard-chive mash. Both dishes were impeccably presented. The timbale was quite tasty, and the sauce was very nice, without being too "over-taragonny" which, I find can sometimes be a problem. I'd not had salsify before, and it was tender and very nicely flavoured. The pancakes, despite being stuffed with leek and cheese were quite bland and had little flavour, which was quite disappointing. However, the fennel and the mash were superb and more than made up for it. Again, the fennel flavour was quite subtle and your head didn't get blown off by a sudden overpowering flavour of aniseed.

My wife was too full for dessert, but I decided to go for the full experience. I ordered an almond & pear tartlet with spiced caramel and vanilla custard. The waitress, who had obviously been watching our plate swapping antics bought two sets of cutlery to the table, without comment which we thought was quite amusing. Needless to say, the dessert was as tasty as it sounds - the spiced caramel swirled into the vanilla custard was gorgeous.

A signed copy of Dennis Cotter's (the owner) latest book Paradiso Seasons, which has just been voted best veggie cookbook in the world, was obtained to go into my Christmas stocking - so I haven't seen it yet - and we returned to the hotel.

I'd definitely recommend the restaurant if you're in Cork and fancy something different from the usual vegetarian restaurant fayre.

Monday, November 14, 2005

The Neal Street Restaurant, Covent Garden

The Neal Street Restaurant
26 Neal Street,
London WC2H 9PS

Tel: 020 7836 8368

On Saturday, my wife and I had a day out in London. The day was a wedding present. During the afternoon we went to see Mama Mia! and then we dined at the Neal Street Restaurant, which is run by Antonio Carluccio, one of my favourite chefs.

Before going into the restaurant we visited the shop next door that sells all sorts of Italian foodie delights. I resisted the temptation to buy anything, but I fear a return trip may be inevitable.

The restaurant itself is fairly plain, well laid out with metal tables and chairs, the walls adorned with pictures and quite a few mirrors that give the impression that it is bigger than it really is.

So, onto the food. It started well. Very well - and very unexpectedly. A small bowl of the largest, greenest olives I've ever seen was put on the table. My wife took one and told me I had to try one as they tasted unlike any olives she had ever had. I reluctantly agreed because, even though I hate olives with a passion second only to tomatoes and parsley (does that make it thirds?) I thought I ought to try out every thing I could in this restaurant. So I gingerly bit the end off of one of them. This was indeed unlike any olive I had ever had before. Very sweet and not unlike sipping the very best Extra Virgin Olive oil.

And so, onto the meal proper.

I decided to start with Tagliolini Al Tarturo Bianco - tagliolini in a truffle sauce with shavings of white truffle. I'd never had truffle, so what better place to try it than in the master of fungi's restaurant. To say it was delicious, is an understatement. Despite the fact that my wife said it tasted like old boots (she's wrong by the way) if I ate nothing but this for the rest of my life I would die happy (and broke). My wife had Trifolata Di Funghi Del Giorno - Mixed sautéed mushrooms of the day with wild garlic and chilli served with carasau bread. I managed to sneak a mouthful or two of the mushrooms and they were cooked to perfection. I'm not a big mushroom expert, but I can definitely say, that there were none of those little button mushrooms in brine that they serve in Little Chef's across the country. They were served on what appeared to be a very large fried crispy tortilla-like thing.

Originally, we were going to go for the full Italian Starter-Primi-Secondi-Dessert meal, but decided to stick to the good-old English three courser in the end, rather than over-eat and not enjoy the end of the meal.

For main course, my wife chose Sella Di Cervo Al Forno - Roasted venison loin served with quince compote and morel sauce. She said it was really nice, especially the compote, which she said had quite a 'marmalady' taste and went really well with the meat. Having completed one quest (my first truffles) it was time for another. Could Antonio, one of my favourite chefs, make polenta interesting...? I chose Polenta E Funghi Porcini - Fresh polenta served with braised porcini mushrooms. I kept my fingers crossed that Antonio wouldn't let me down. The plate itself looked okay, but nothing special. A bowl of polenta in the middle of which was a pile of mushrooms. The polenta was quite loose, 'floating', if you will, in olive oil. And so, I dug my fork into the polenta for a taste. Very nice. Not amazing, but certainly not boring. I tasted a mushroom. Very nice indeed. Nice texture, nice 'strong' mushroom taste. I scooped a forkful of mushroom and polenta together. That was the way to do it. Suddenly, the combination of the two created this amazing smoky flavour. Carluccio had done it - a non boring polenta dish!

For dessert I had Panna Cotta Alla Grappa Con Pere Caramellate - Panna Cotta with pear flavoured grappa, served with caramelised pears. It's as nice as it sounds, and looked great to boot. My wife had the Sorbetto Di Campari I E Frutto Della Passione - Campari and passion fruit sorbet. Initially she said it was lovely, but after a few mouthfuls she said that the bitter after taste began to take over. The only downside, if there was one (not including the one near junction 10 of the M25) was the vegetables. On the menu, they were £3.50 for "seasonal vegetables and salads from Italy." Having been told that they consisted of roasted potatoes, spinach and endives we asked for just the potatoes and spinach, not realising that the £3.50 was for each vegetable, rather than a selection of all of them. This seemed a little excessive for the amount that was delivered, although both were tasty. So that was it. I'm pleased to say that Carluccio lived up to my expectations and I'd definitely go back given the chance.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Sausage & Mash Cafe, London

Sausage & Mash Cafe
48 Brushfield Street
London E1

Tel: 0207 247 2252

On Friday evening, I met up with a couple of mates and headed for the Sausage and Mash Cafe in Brushfield Street, a (reasonable) stones throw from Liverpool Street station.

The place itself is decorated like a little old 50's diner with plastic red check table cloths, padded bench seats against the wall and old wooden chairs.

I started with garlic mushrooms served with various greenery which was very tasty. The mushrooms were open face mushrooms that were sliced and there were plenty of them. I didn't think it was overly garlicy, but was told later that it was!

The main menu concept is quite good. They have a selection of different sausages, traditional and gourmet, from which you choose a selection depending on which menu price option you wish to go for (two sausages and mash, three sausages and mash, up to their "Desperate Dan" option of twelve sausages!) You then choose from a selection of mashed potatoes to accompany the sausages and finally you choose which gravy you would like.

There were a couple of veggie sausage options on the menu and one on the specials board, so I plumped for a three sausage selection and had one each of mushroom & tarragon, glamorgan leek and cheese and a mediterranean spicy. To accompany the sausages I had bubble & squeak mash (they had a selection including 'virgin' mashed potato and rosemary mash) and I finished the dish off with a tomato & basil gravy.

It was all very nice, personally I could've done with a bit more mash, but no mind - it was still filling. I have been told by other diners that the mash portions are usually quite large, so this maybe an unfair criticism.

Each table has a selection of gourmet mustards as well as ketchup and brown sauce, so each of my sausages was smeared with a different mustard.

After that, I had apple crumble and custard - very nice and just like your Mum used to make and it was washed down with a nice glass of London Pride. All that for around £17 a head.

Having thought earlier that the portions weren't as big as I would've liked, I found that I was very full indeed once we left.

They also have a breakfast menu, as well as an 'all day breakfast' on the menu (both meaty & veggie) so next time I arrive early in the area for an appointment I'll be giving McD's Egg McMuffin a miss and heading here instead.

Definitely recommended for something a bit different and fun.

Monday, October 31, 2005

Meat Free, Oriental Style

I went shopping at Wing Yip in Croydon at the weekend. It's great for buying your spices, sauces, oils etc as you can get huge amounts at very reasonable prices. It beats paying over inflated prices for pretty jars full of not very much at the local supermarket.

I know that not everyone likes the idea of meat substitutes in a veggie diet, but its never really bothered me. If I can get the same texture and taste as meat but nothing has to suffer and die for it, then all the better.

When I saw a shelf of various soy meat substitutes, I simply had to try a couple of them - for fun if nothing else. So I grabbed a pack of "crispy duck", a pack of "king prawn" and a pack of "mutton" to try. Armed with these, some pancakes, various sauces and vegetables I made my way home to cook up an oriental extravaganza!

I decided to do the traditional crispy duck with pancakes, hoisin sauce and spring onions. The "duck" needed to be placed on an oiled tray and put in the oven for about ten minutes. When I took it out of the oven it was quite mushy, but began to crisp up as it cooled. Once sliced into strips it and put in the pancakes it was really rather tasty.

The "king prawns" were cooked in the oven in the same way. I then made a Thai-like curry sauce using curry paste, lemon grass and coconut milk (I also threw in some red pepper and onion for good measure) and then dropped the "prawns" in for a few minutes. The "prawns" weren't bad - the texture was quite chewy and they had absorbed some of the curry flavour.

Overall, I preferred the "duck" and will be getting this again. The "prawns" I could take or leave, but it was interesting to try. I've still got a few of them left in the pack, and of course, I've still to try the "mutton". Also on the shelf in Wing Yip were vegetarian versions of shrimp, squid and chicken amongst others. A bit weird I know, but if I decide to try them, you can be sure I'll let you know!

Monday, October 10, 2005

Munching Down California Highway One

I've just got back from a week traveling from San Francisco down to Los Angeles on California Highway One, the Pacific Coast Highway.

As usual, a big part of the adventure was trying to find food that I could eat, that was also tasty. On the whole, I succeeded and had some fine fare during the journey.

I won't bore you with the complete details of the journey, but I'll highlight a few of the places that we ate and give you my impressions of the places.

Before starting the journey from San Francisco, we spent a couple of nights in Las Vegas where we met with some friends to celebrate a 40th birthday. As part of the celebrations we all went out for a slap-up meal. Of a party of seven, four were vegetarian so finding a place that catered for veggies was reasonably important and we'd found a Mexican restaurant called Viva Mercado's just off the strip.

Viva Mercado's
6182 W Flamingo Rd, Las Vegas
Tel: 702.871.8826

Viva Mercado's seems to be reasonably vegetarian savvy. When they were contacted about our party having several veggies in it, they told us to make sure that we let them know on the night as their refried beans were usually boiled in chicken stock, and they would make sure that there would be a separate batch that was prepared using vegetable stock. And they did, and there was plenty of it.

Viva Mercado's have a vegetarian section on their menu and I chose the Enchiladas de Verduras - corn tortillas filled with a mix of fresh veggies simmered in a salsa espanola topped with melted cheese, diced onion and sour cream. There was plenty of it (as is the case with most American restaurants) and it was pretty tasty. The other veggies ordered different dishes from the section and pronounced that they were also tasty. I guess the evening will be remembered most, though, for the many different coloured margheritas that we drank - and these were after the bright blue Romulan Ales that we had consumed at the Hilton's Star Trek Experience (the after effects of which are probably best left to your imagination) and a fine time was had by all.

We then spent a day in San Francisco. We ate in Chinatown in the evening at a place called the Empress of China.

Empress of China
838 Grant Ave, San Francisco, CA 94108
Tel: (415) 434-1345

This restaurant is on the sixth floor of a building in the middle of Chinatown. If you manage to get a table in the right place you get a great view of the bay. We picked several mixed vegetable dishes from the menu and I was expecting them to be roughly the same only with noodles in the chow mein. I'm pleased to say, I was pleasantly surprised. The mixed veg chow mein tasted different to the plain mixed veg - and had a different selection of vegetables. These in turn had a different selection to the vegetable pancake wraps. And the vegetable pancakes with chilli sauce were great.

From San Francisco we made our way down Highway One stopping at the small town of Pescadero for elevenses.

Duarte's Tavern
Duarte's Tavern, 202 Stage Road, Pescadero, CA 94060

Try the pecan pie - it's fabulous! And so, I have it on good authority, is the apricot pie.

For lunch we ended up in Santa Cruz at the Saturn Cafe.

Saturn Cafe
145 Laurel Street, Santa Cruz, CA
Tel: 831-429-8505

We came across this place more by accident than design, although later I found it was in my Happy cow list of veggie restaurants that I had taken with me.

The Saturn Cafe is a totally vegetarian restaurant and the menu is fab. The decor is not quite so - it does nothing to dispel the "weirdo veggie" myth - but, hey, its fun. The same can't be said of the toilets - the less said, the better.

As for the food though - very tasty and plenty of it. The menu consists mostly of salads, pasta and burgers - the burgers are available as either vegetable patties, soy 'meaty' burgers or 'chix' a chicken like burger. I had the Space cowboy burger, which came with onion rings, bar-b-que sauce, cheese, salad, fakin bacon and a choice of skinny or fat fries. There was tons of it - sometimes I wish I could master the 'Scooby Doo' way of eating huge sandwiches, rather than have it all spilling out everywhere - and it was incredibly tasty. The ravioli that someone on a table nearby had looked really good too. Unfortunately I was too full to try the Chocolate Tofu pie, I would've liked to as it sounds most interesting.

In the evening we ended up in Monterey and found a little Thai Restaurant to eat at.

Amarin Thai Cuisine
807 Cannery Row, Monterey, CA 93940-1044
Tel:(831) 373-8811

To be honest, we probably didn't need to eat on this particular evening, given the guzzling that we had been doing all day. But my duty to you, the reader, meant that I felt duty bound to stretch my poor old stomach muscles one more time...

The Amarin Thai had a tofu version of just about everything on the menu. Red curries, green, yellow - whatever colour takes your fancy, nestling at the bottom of the list was a tofu version. I had to try this place out.

I started with a Thom Kah soup which consisted of tofu (of course) and veggies in a lemongrass and coconut milk soup. It was nice, but by the end the, originally fresh, spicy lemongrass and coconut flavour had begun to wear on me and I was glad to finish it. For my main course I chose Pra Ram, which was the inevitable tofu with a spicy peanut sauce. Tasty it was, but boy was there a lot of it. I managed to eat about half of it before I finally gave up. But, as I said - it was really nice, right down the the last mouthful I could manage.

And so the drive continued along highway One to Cambria and a little place called Robin's Restaurant.

Robin's Restaurant
4095 Burton Drive, Cambria, CA 93428
Tel: 805 927 5007

Robin's was, quite simply, the best meal I had during my time in California. Robin's is a lovely little restaurant with a covered 'garden' seating area - I imagine that during warm summer nights the covers come off.

I started with mushroom gratin - mushrooms in a chardonnay sauce, with cheese and fried parmesan bread. For mains I had Robin's Chow, which is a dish of stir fried fresh vegetables with noodles, garlic, ginger, soy and either chicken or tofu. I opted for the tofu. It was yummy. If I had any criticism it is that they used a soft tofu where I think a firmer, marinated or maybe smoked tofu would compliment the dish better. Even so, the tofu had managed to absorb a lot of the flavours and wasn't at all bland.

This was the first meal that I had had in the US where I was able to eat dessert. That's not to say that the portions were small - they were just right. For dessert, I had to have the creme brulee - I give it about 7.5 on my scale. The creme could have been that little smoother, but it tasted fine and was made with real vanilla.

And so the drive took us to Santa Barbara where we dined at Aldo's.

Aldo's Restaurant
1031 State Street, Santa Barbara, CA 93101
Tel: (805) 963-6687

The service here was very good - the waiter made a special effort to get our order in ahead of a very large party that had arrived just before us and the food was lovely and there was tons of it.

The main courses came with a selection of soup or salad (just as well we hadn't already ordered starters) and I chose sun-dried tomato and basil soup. It was very tasty. For mains I had a smoked cheese stuffed ravioli in a sun-dried tomato and artichoke sauce. It was really tasty, although I did feel that I'd overdosed somewhat on sun-dried tomatoes by the end. And I was stuffed. Uncomfortably full. The veggie selection on the menu here is quite good, and the setting is nice as it lays back a little bit from the main street allowing you to watch the world go by without necessarily being part of it.

The next day we drove to Solvang, a small Danish town about 30 minutes drive from Santa Barbara. If you're into pancakes this is the place to go. May I recommend Paula's Pancake House. I'm not going to write a review of the pancakes except to say that they were big. And very good.

The Solvang Restaurant was featured in the film Sideways and we ended up there for lunch.

Solvang Restaurant
1672 Copenhagen Drive, Solvang, CA, 93463
Tel: (805) 688-4645

We didn't have much to eat here, but I thought it was worth a mention. Originally, my sweet tooth had decided that I would try the aebleskiver, a Danish pancake, but I decided not to after the excesses of the previous day. So I had their sourdough sandwich with eggplant, onion, pepper, mozzarella and pesto. It was very tasty and surprisingly filling.

In the evening we were back in Santa Barbara having toured several wineries during the afternoon. For our evening meal we went to the Natural Cafe.

Natural Cafe
508 State St, Santa Barbara
Tel: (805) 962-9494

The Natural Cafe prides itself on good, natural ingredients and good healthy food. You order and pay at the till and the food is delivered to your table. I'm not sure if its the norm, but our starter and main turned up together, so we had a huge plate of hummus and pitta bread to eat at the same time as the pasta with pesto and feta cheese that I had ordered for mains. Once again, there was plenty of it and I was glad that we had ordered one hummus between the two of us, as there was far too much for one person to eat. Even so, we still left some. The pasta I had was okay, but not as special as I'd hoped, it was all a bit dry but I enjoyed it none the less.

And so my travels in Las Vegas and along the California coast came to an end. I can't really recommend the airport food, although I was pleasantly surprised to see that Burger King do a veggie burger and Subway is always a life saver.

We flew with Virgin Atlantic, and the veggie meals were some of the best I've had. They were certainly miles ahead of the soap-like block of tofu that QANTAS served me once on a journey between Singapore and Australia.

Monday, September 26, 2005

Cordon Vert Cookery School

Vegetarian Society Cordon Vert Cookery School
Parkdale, Altrincham

I spent the weekend doing two one day workshops at the Vegetarian Society's Cordon Vert Cookery School near Manchester. The workshops were the "Italian Cookery" and "Around the World."

Saturday was the Italian Cookery day. I'm sure it will come as no surprise to learn that this course concentrates on recipes and food that originates in Italy, and the recipes for the day included pasta, stuffed peppers, risotto and the like.

There were nine of us on the course, and all except one were vegetarians. The tutors welcome non veggies as they are always keen to show that vegetarian food can be exciting and tasty.

The day began with demos of pasta making and foccachia bread making followed by a run through of the recipes that we would be cooking. Everybody made some pasta dough and we were then split into three groups of three and the recipes divided amongst us. The group I was in made spaghetti, stuffed peppers, biscotti, pesto and baked fennel in creamy white wine sauce.
We also tried our hand at making tortellini.

Once all of the groups had finished their cooking, it was time to eat. The menu started with rosemary focaccia accompanied by peppers stuffed with olive paste, garlic, cherry tomatoes and capers. This was then followed by spaghetti with pesto, spinach and ricotta tortellini in a rich tomato sauce and squash and sage tortellini in a vodka lemon cream and chive sauce. After this came Il Secondo which was the baked fennel in cream and a lemon herb risotto cake accompanied by a chickpea salad. For dessert we had a chocolate amaretti flan. This was then all washed down with coffee and the biscotti.

The meal, although I do say so myself - having had quite a large hand in cooking it - was lovely. The flavours of the different dishes all complemented each other and whoever designed the menu for this course should be congratulated.

The course itself was good fun and the tutors were very good, keeping an eye on everyone and helping out where and when they were needed.

On Sunday it was the "All Around the World" course. This consisted of recipes from such places as Greece, Morocco, Russia and South Africa.

Once again the course began with demos of various techniques - pastry making, rolling vine leaves etc before we were split into teams and given various recipes to cook. Today, there were also nine on the course, but only two of us had done the course yesterday.

The format was very similar, but the recipes were more fiddly and took more thought and preparation than the ones on the Italian course yesterday.

After a few hours in the kitchen we sat down to eat what we had prepared. For starters we had Thai mushroom soup with crispy wontons. Two groups had prepared different batches of the soup and it is always interesting to taste the difference between the dishes that different people have made when following the same recipe. The soups were no exception. One was quite spicy, the other less so and had a more earthy flavour.

The main course consisted of a real mixture of dishes. Dolmada, Bobitie - roasted vegetables in an egg custard from South Africa, Russian Piroshki with a carrot filling, Paneer Seekh Kebabs, Flautas and a range of salsas and dips. The weird thing was, they all sort of complemented each other despite being from different international cuisines. For dessert we had baked fruit cake custard pudding - rather like a bread pudding made with fruit cake and an orange infused custard, and Caribbean coffee, ginger and rum trifle. Yummm!

Everyone said that they thoroughly enjoyed the two days and I for one can't wait to go back to do some more. I'm currently about a third of the way through my Cordon Vert Diploma courses, so have a way to go yet but I'm enjoying every minute. Next up is the Far Eastern course in January. As you may imagine, being a curry lover, I am really looking forward to that one.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

An Audience with Antonio Carluccio

Trinity Theatre, Tunbridge Wells

I’ve always been a big fan of Antonio Carluccio. His enthusiasm for food and the apparent simplicity of his recipes have always appealed to me. His “Vegetables” book is widely used in my kitchen and I’ve been to his Cafés several times and have never had a bad meal or poor service there.

So, when I saw that he was appearing at a local venue to promote his new book, Italia, I booked up and went along.

The theatre was full, which is a testament to his popularity. The evening was fairly informal and consisted of Antonio telling a few tales to the audience, cooking a couple of dishes and then, during the second half, taking some questions.

During the first half of the evening, he introduced us to his book, explaining that he had travelled the twenty different regions of Italy gathering stories and recipes. He started off by cooking Gnocchi di Ricotta con Sugo di Porcini – Ricotta dumplings with porcini sauce. During this task, he was ably assisted by Marco, the chef from the local branch of Carluccio’s Café. As he began to cook, the wonderful smells began to waft over the audience, and I, for one, became very hungry as I would imagine everyone else did.

The next dish he did was La Costoletta del Curato which was a veal dish with pesto. The veal didn’t interest me, but the pesto was made with about a dozen different herbs including Basil, Chervil, Dill, Mint, Chives, Parsley and Tarragon and as they were being crushed in a mortar and pestle they smelled gorgeous.

Then it was the interval where we were able to sample the gnocchi dish prepared, Antonio informed us, by Marco from some 12 kilos of ricotta! It was served in very small cups, but was very nice. I could easily have eaten a whole dish of it. The gnocchi, despite having only ricotta, flour and breadcrumbs was very similar to the potato gnocchi that most of us are used to.

After the break, Antonio answered questions from the audience. This was quite entertaining and we found out how and why he had turned to a career in cooking from his former career in wine, why he thought the English under-rated their own food and much more besides.

Overall, a very entertaining evening. And yes, I did buy his new book and stood in line for the great man to sign it too. Well, you have to do these things don’t you?

Sunday, September 18, 2005

The Olive Branch Brasserie & Bar

The Olive Branch Brasserie & Bar
High Street
Essex CO16 0EA

Tel: 01255 861199

I’ve suffered with migraine since I began my teens and there’s nothing worse than when it spoils something that you’ve been looking forward to for ages.

My wife was taking me to the Olive Branch in Thorpe-Le-Soken for my birthday. I’d been there once, many years ago and remembered it as being a good, up-market restaurant that served fabulous food.

So it was, that we ventured to the restaurant near the Essex coast.

The service was superb, we waited in the bar area with a drink (Glenmorangie on my part, Verve Clicquot for my wife) while our orders were taken. We were then shown to our table and the wine (a fruity New Zealand white - I forget the name) arrived as, shortly after, did the starters. I started with veggie sushi with a sweet chilli sauce - very nice. The sushi stuffing (if you will) consisted of very finely sliced carrot, cucumber and what appeared to be vermicelli noodles and was very tasty. Even the side salad, which I typically leave, had a tasty mustard dressing on it so it was duly eaten. My wife had a Pancetta and Gruyere Muffin (which they would also do without the pancetta as a veggie option). She said that it too was very tasty.

And so onto the mains. There was only one veggie main dish, Grilled Halloumi Cheese with Anti Pasti Vegetables. I love anti-pasti and halloumi, so the combination sounded great. And it was. The vegetables - aubergines, courgettes and peppers - were grilled and had just the right amount of 'char' to their flavour - except one piece of courgette that should have applied a bit more sunscreen before venturing close to the grill - and beneath the halloumi were some crushed new potatoes. The olive oil was delicately flavoured with various herbs and tasted great. Unfortunately, about three quarters of the way through the dish, the old migraine decided that I'd eaten enough and raised the appetite inhibitors. So that was that. I called it a day and forewent the desert I was planning - chocolate crepes with Grand Marnier, should you be interested.

My wife had a lamb dish which she said was nice (but not up to New Zealand lamb standards that she, as an Antipodean, is used to) and we had sweet potato and rosemary mash and grilled asparagus for side dishes - both quite tasty.

The Olive Branch is not the cheapest of places, but then again it isn't the dearest either - main courses ranged from £10 to £59 (for lobster for two) but the presentation, service, taste and amount of the food is certainly worth the price.

We plan to do a return trip sometime in the near future and finish all the courses without any interruption from recurring illnesses.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Treble Tile - Colchester

The Treble Tile
Colchester Road, West Bergholt, Essex.
Tel: 01206 241712

I’ve been here several times and never been disappointed. The restaurant has a certain charm about it, wooden floorboards, mismatched tables and chairs and bookshelves with cookery books and old classic novels to browse through while waiting, should you wish so. The restaurant doesn’t have a booking system, you just wander in and wait for a table, so it pays to get there early.

The menu changes frequently and there are always several vegetarian choices on all sections of the menu. They have a set menu that’s around a tenner for two courses, or you can mix and match from the a la carte and the set menu.

On this particular visit, there were three vegetarians in the party, so we managed to sample several of the dishes. Once seated, we were presented with a basket of homemade red onion and herb bread with an olive oil and balsamic vinegar dip. The bread was light, fluffy and still warm and disappeared in moments.

In the Treble Tile, you place your order at the bar and the food is then delivered to the table. When the starters arrived (more of which in a moment) we commented how nice the bread was. Within seconds of the waitress disappearing, the owner arrived at our table with another basket, which again didn’t last for long.

And so, onto the starters. We sampled three different meat free starters from the menu, a carrot and orange soup, courgette and mint fritters and goat’s cheese fried in couscous. All were extremely tasty. The soup was smooth and creamy and had just a hint of orange. The golden, crispy fried couscous that encased the goat’s cheese was a nice change from the normal bread crumbs and the courgette and mint fritters were surprisingly light. They were served with sour cream and were gorgeous. Both the goat’s cheese and the fritters were served with an enormous side salad that would have easily made a meal on its own.

For the main course, two of our party chose the grilled vegetable cottage pie and I went for the wild mushroom risotto. There were a couple of other meat free dishes on the menu too. The cottage pie was pronounced as “really tasty” and was served with a side salad. The wild mushroom risotto was packed with four or so different varieties of mushrooms and the texture was creamy and ‘gloopy’ which is how I like them. Once again, it came with the ubiquitous side salad.

As for dessert, we were all too full which is a shame, because from my previous experience of the place, they serve one of the best crème-brulees I’ve ever had and this particular menu also boasted banana pancakes with a rum and raisin sauce as well as others. Maybe next time…

As for the prices, if you choose not to go for the set menu, the main courses are between £5 and £8 and are extremely good value for money. With a drink and tip included we ended up paying about £13 per head.

The Treble Tile is open every day for lunch and dinner (except Sunday evenings I believe) and, if you’re in the Colchester/North Essex area and feeling peckish, I heartily recommend it.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Tas - Borough High Street, London

72 Borough High Street, London SE1 1LL
Tel: 020 7403 7200

I met up with some friends for a meal at this Turkish restaurant near London Bridge and had a great time. The vegetarian selection (there were two in our party of four) was pretty extensive and all the dishes (both meat and non-meat) we chose were pronounced extremely tasty. For dessert I recommend the cubed aubergine. It sounds weird, but is really tasty. The only downside was that the service tended to be a bit on the slow side, but as we were happy to sit and chat between courses this wasn't really a problem.

Friday, June 17, 2005

Carnevale - Whitecross Street, London

135 Whitecross Street, London EC1Y 8JL
Tel: 020 7250 3452

We braved Carnevale on a very rainy Wednesday night and were very pleased that we did. The restaurant is fairly cosy and gets busy making it a little cramped.
However, the food was very tasty and the service was courteous and friendly. There were a couple of side dishes on the menu that were unavailable, presumably because of the unobtainability of the fresh produce. However, what we did have was pronounced by myself and my friend (who is not a veggie) as extremely tasty and pretty good value for money. If I have any complaints it is that a couple more dishes on the menu (there were four mains) wouldn't go amiss.