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.