Sunday, 23 August 2015

The Modern Pantry, Clerkenwell - I want the duck!

Selection of starters to share
Just over a week ago Becks, a couple of work colleagues and I had dinner at The Modern Pantry in Clerkenwell. It was memorable for the waiting staff that looked after us and the rather amusing man at a nearby table.

We started off with a waiter who couldn't exactly be described as enthusiastic. Menus were dropped off at our table without a welcome to the restaurant or wishing us a pleasant evening. He then returned a little later and told us, incredibly matter of factly, that the duck confit wouldn't be available for another hour and that the lamb chop on the menu was being replaced with a pork chop. Even some faked regret might have been nice.

The main 'entertainment' of the evening then occurred when a nearby table attempted to order the duck confit. The diner in questions became most 'excited' that an item on the menu should be unavailable. He may have really wanted to the duck, but there was no need to take it out on the poor waitress. If someone I was dining with behaved like that I'd be more than a little embarrassed, but his two dining companions didn't bat an eye lid. It made me wonder if these were regular antics.

Shortly afterwards one of the managers sidled over to the table to try and soothe the troubled waters.

Chermoula marinated pollock

Our initial waiter had become so indifferent to our table that he didn't come back. Happily he was replaced by a very friendly waitress who was much more engaging and interested in us having a good time. She happily explained dishes to us so and even bought an ingredient out to our table so that we could see and taste it. The contrast couldn't have been more stark.

We, obviously, couldn't resist keeping an eye on the table across the dining room. When their main courses arrived I couldn't quite make out what our excitable friend received. Was it the duck? Or could it have been the pork chop? Regardless, it wasn't to his liking and it was sent back to the kitchen after a couple of bites. He didn't receive a new main course until well after both his dining companions had finished their dishes.
Chocolate and almond sponge and Peach Melba
The menu could best be described as 'ingredient led' and more often than not it was quite hard to work out what a dish was going to be like. All the menu had was a list of ingredients with no real indication on how they would be cooked or which ingredients would be the star.

The pollock I had for my main was well cooked, but it wasn't particularly substantial as a main course. It surely at £19 it wouldn't have hurt their profit margin too much to give me more than a couple of jersey royals?

On occasion, the dishes also felt a little over-complicated too. The chocolate and almond sponges we shared for dessert were overpowered by the cherry and mahlab sorbet. Just a simple cherry sorbet would have been better for my tastes.

47-48 St John’s Square
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Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Chicago and New York Eats

A couple of weeks ago I had a flying work visit across to Chicago and New York. I arrived into Chicago in the early evening on Sunday and in an attempt to keep myself awake for a couple of hours before it was a respectable time to go to bed I went out for a walk determined to see the 'coffee bean' which I'd run tantalisingly close to on my previous visit to Chicago, but not actually seen. It's a very cool piece of public art.

On my way back to the hotel I passed the Citroen van above. Turned into a food truck selling donuts I was quite surprised to see it so far from home. It is clearly not just the London street food vendors that are sucking all the retro Citroen vans out of France. There can't be any left in France by now!

I didn't take my camera with me and barely took any phone pics either, but here's a quick roundup of some of the highlights of what I ate.

On Monday lunchtime I made a beeline for the Montreal pastrami sandwich from the French Market in Central Chicago. It was every bit as good as the first time I tried it on my previous visit back in April.
Montreal Pastrami sandwich
For my only dinner in Chicago I went to David Burke's Primehouse with a couple of people from the office. We were told to try the Caesar salad and it was fantastic. Made on a trolley that they wheel to the side of your table the salad is made by the dressing. It's not a heavy mayonnaise based dressing, but a tangy parmesan laced version which perfectly coats every leaf. Definitely worth trying.

As a main I had the 40 day aged ribeye steak. It was quite enormous, quite heavily salted and very tender. I, inadvisably, ate the lot and was in a protein coma as I walked back to my hotel.

New York
I only had two nights in NYC and on the first evening I met up with my friends Rohit and Pryanka to try Amma and Indian restaurant that had been recommended to me and they had heard good things about to.

The restaurant is smaller than expected, located in a converted house on 51 St over on the East side. None of us realised it was restaurant week, where lots of establishments across NY offer fixed price menus for $38. They can be great value if you manage to get a slot at one of the city's top restaurants, but when you are (nearly exclusively) eating the vegetarian options from the menu, in what is a mid priced restaurant anyway, it can actually turn out to be more expensive than going a la carte during the rest of the year.

The service was a bit rushed, the air con not working properly on a sweltering evening and the starters and desserts nothing to right home about. However, the mains of shahi paneer, vegetable Kohlapuri and lamb apricot were all pretty good.
Crab cake at Wild Edibles
On my second night in NY I headed back to where I used to live for a short time and had dinner at Wild Edibles. They've changed the front of the restaurant so I nearly didn't go in as I thought it had changed hands, however, they've just reconfigured the layout so that they can fit in more seats.

I ordered the crab cake to start which, just as the menu described, came with lumps of crab meat and had very little "filler" in it which was great. For my main I had the New Orleans style shrimp with corn. The prawns and broth had the perfect amount of spice and I very nearly ordered some bread so that I could mop up the sauce that was left in my bowl.
Shrimp at Wild Edibles
During Thursday lunchtime I jealously watched a couple of people in the office devouring these hug looking buns which came from a place called Kobeyaki, so on Friday I headed out in search of one and, on the advice of my colleagues, ordered the soft shell crab bun which came served with japanese mayo, crab meat and shredded cabbage. It wasn't blow my mind amazing, but it didn't last very long either!
Soft shell crab sandwich from Kobeyaki

Monday, 17 August 2015

Mayfield Lavender Fields

Rows of lavender
Last month a friend at work visited the lavender fields just south of London and on Sunday afternoon we decided to go and check them out before the season ended.

We caught the train from Brockley to Woodmanstern and then had a largely rural half an hour walk across to the lavender fields. Arriving by a public footpath we saved the £1 entry fee as there was only someone collecting money on the main gate where all the cars were coming in. Whoop!

The lavender field is just that, a big field. The field is planted with three different type of lavender, two of which had already been harvesting meaning there was only around a quarter of the field left to enjoy.
There were bees everywhere
You are free to wonder up and down the rows of lavender and taking photos of the lavender and / or bees seems to be the main activity. There were a surprising number of international tourists from India, Japan and China at the lavender farm so I suspect it must be tipped in a few guide books to the UK. It was a pleasant afternoon, but I'm not sure if it would be on the top of my to do list during a two week visit to the UK.
Lavender field selfie
In one corner of the field they've set up a café and shop which is open in the summer months. We were both up for buying some lavender themed gifts, but thought the shop was a missed opportunity as the range was quite small and the prices high (catering to the tourist market).

The café had long queues and limited seating so we headed over the road to the Oaks Park Tea Room in a nearby park for a drink and slice of cake before popping back into the lavender field for a final look round before walking back to the station for the lavender express back into London.

Mayfield Lavender Field
Croydon Lane

Sunday, 9 August 2015

Nonna's Kitchen and the Book of Mormon

Rigatoni della Nona
Two weekends ago we headed into the west end to see the musical Book or Mormon (which was excellent, but more on that later).

Before the show we had dinner at Nonna's Kitchen a Sicilian restaurant located just round the corner from the theatre. Having been so wowed with the food in Sicily on our honeymoon we were both interested to see how Nonna's compared.

While nothing can really compare with the memories of your honeymoon, Nonna's was a very solid option in a touristy part of town I'd usually steer well clear of if I was looking for 'good' food. There were lots of dishes on the menu I'd identify with being Sicilian and, if I remember correctly, they import some of their ingredients directly from the island.
Casarecce con pesce spade e melenzane
We started with some bread, dips and olives while we were looking at the menus. An incredibly generous serving for £4 the restaurant are shooting themselves in the foot as it put us off ordering any starters.

As a main course I ordered the rigatoni della Nonna. Initially I wasn't too impressed when a bowl with just three meatballs arrived in front of me, but looks can be deceiving as the meatballs were excellent.

For dessert I ordered the cassatina hoping it would be like the one I tried at Café Sicilia. It was a completely different in cake in style and I couldn't quite change my expectations enough to fully enjoy it.
After dinner we went to see The Book of Mormon at the Prince of Wales theatre. I knew absolutely nothing about the musical, but knew Becks was keen to see it so had bought tickets. It turned out she didn't know much about it either and just before the curtain went up we read this synopsis on Wikipedia:

The Book of Mormon tells the story of two young Mormon missionaries sent to a remote village in northern Uganda, where a brutal warlord is threatening the local population. Naïve and optimistic, the two missionaries try to share the Book of Mormon, one of their scriptures—which only one of them has read—but have trouble connecting with the locals, who are more worried about war, famine, poverty and AIDS than about religion.

It was pleased we'd read the description as it gave me a frame of reference to understand what was to come, which was hilarious and brilliantly acted by the young cast.

Nonna's Kitchen
39 Panton Street,

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

Honeymoon Day 5: Syracuse: Archaeological Park and the Museum Archeologico

Teatro Grecko in Syracuse
It was searingly hot day in Syracuse and we decided to spend the morning and early afternoon out in the heat. Only mad dogs and Englishman go out in the midday sun they say.

Our objective was the Archealogical Park which is located a good thirty / forty minute walk across town from where we were staying on the island of Ortega. When we arrived at the park we headed to the entrance gates, where we thought we’d be able to buy a ticket, only to discover that they had to be purchased across a busy road and one the far side of the coach park. It defies logic why you’d have such a layout, but it must be amusing for the locals to see all the tourists trekking backwards and forwards.

Once we finally had our tickets, and had made it safely back across the road, we decided to top up our water bottles at fountain before heading into the park. Water which was pretty unpleasant to drink due to the high mineral content, but there weren’t any shops in the park to buy mineral water so we were stuck with it.

Inside the park, armed with a small map that didn’t really seem to resemble reality on the ground, we were free to wander around. We first made our way to see a number of caves. The cave of Dionysus' Ear was ruly dramatic in scale and it was nice and cool in the cave, a welcome relief from the heat outside. I think my attempts to test the echoing qualities of the cave might have embarrassed Becks a little, but I wasn’t alone in testing the acoustic qualities.

Outside the cave I, unwittingly, sat down on a broken bench. As the German tourists sitting at the other end of the bench stood up, I plummeted towards the ground without the counterweight of my German friends at the other end!

Dionysus' Ear
After the caves we headed for the most famous feature of the park, the Teatro Grecko. Far larger than the Greek amphitheatre we’d seen in Palazzolo Acreidi this really was on an epic scale. Unfortunately they were preparing the theatre for the summer series of performances and had boxed in many of the seats so you couldn’t see it in its original splendour. However, the scale was truly epic in itself.

Suitably hot and tired by this stage we went to rest under some trees and sipped our rather ‘delicious’ water from the fountain. When it was time to move on, I was keen to see the Roman amphitheatre that was mentioned in our guide book and shown on our map of the park. There was no obvious path to the amphitheatre so we asked one of the staff at the entrance how to get there, only to be told it was closed for refurbishment and ‘might’ open next year. I knew the Roman amphitheatre wasn’t supposed to be as stellar as the Greek theatre, but was disappointed to miss it all the same.
The archaeological park felt like a window on all Sicilian tourist attractions. Fascinating in their historical interest, but a little flawed in the execution.

Having covered what was open we decided to leave the park and head in search of some lunch. Our afternoon target was the Museum Archeologico which wasn’t located too far away. I thought we’d spot lots of cafés between the two major touristic attractions, but the residential rounds were devoid or tourists or cafés.

Spotting an unpretentious looking café, down a side street, and in the middle of some housing blocks we decided to try our luck and had one of my favourite lunches of the holiday. The small café had a counter / bar on onside filled with savoury snacks, and on the side of the café were two huge fridges filled with desserts. We ordered a couple of cold drinks and sat down at a cramped table and chairs. From my perch I could see into a pretty large pastry kitchen out the back which I guessed was the source of all the cakes in the two large fridges.

After spotting a café which sold only arrancini in Noto, both Becks and I had been keen to try one so it seemed like the obvious choice for lunch. Becks ordered a ragu arrancini and I ordered a spinach flavoured one. Mine didn’t get close to filling my up so I ordered a second ragu flavoured arrancini and it was really good. I can see why they’d be a popular snack.

Ragu arrancini
It was fun to people watch while we were eating and cooling down. The owner / manager seemed to be enjoying himself strolling around his little café and helping himself to a lick of ice-cream. A gentleman came in for a brioche ice-cream sandwich (immediately to our list of things to try) and there was a group of guys who just seemed to come in and hang out. From the reaction of the manager, I suspect they might do it a lot.

We couldn’t leave without trying something from the dessert fridges so, very modestly, selected a small semi fredo each. A disc of cake at the bottom, then a ball of ice cream all covered covered in a topping which had set hard. I went for pistachio and Becks wild strawberry, both local flavours.

Semi fredo
They say that you can’t help but support the mafia if you visit Sicily as their influence is so pervasive. I didn’t wonder a couple of times, with no real basis apart from my imagination, if this was our time supporting.

After our lunch we headed across to the Museum Archeologico. It was a museum like no other I’ve ever been to.

Sicilian archaeologists seem to have sought out EVERY pot of historical interest from across the entire island of Sicily and bought them to museum. The archaeologists were focused though, if it wasn’t a pot, it wasn’t making it through the door. We must have walked past a good few thousand pots by the time we’d finished. Tiny, enormous, medium sized, intact, broken, reassembled, plain and painted they had pots of every type and it quickly became quite mind numbing. I would have quite happily skipped the upper floor, but we stuck at it, not wanting to miss out on the room which contained something other than pots. If there was on, we didn’t find it and it took us a good three hours before we managed to escape the world of ancient clay pots.

Museum Archeological
Before we did escape we headed to the basement to use the facilities. In half opened crates, which it looked like were being prepared to be loaned to another museum, or I suspect returned from a loan and just left there, were a number of ornate mosaics. Relegated to the basement as being completely the wrong format for the museum upstairs I was shocked that they were just left their unguarded.

Over the road from the museum was the church of the weeping Madona. A modern brutalist, but intriguing church that we walked through on our way home. Built in the round we walked down one of the ramps and into the church, arriving on a circular passage way / balcony that looked down into the main body of the church below. The church was quite apart from a few nuns tending to the alter. Quite interesting architecturally, we walked around one third of the way round the church before heading back into the sunshine outside and making our way across town and back to our hotel.

Church of the Weeping Madona

Monday, 3 August 2015

Honeymoon Day 4: Noto, Palazzolo Acreide and Syracuse

Noto's cathedral
On our final morning in Noto we checked out of the hotel and took our bags out to the car. The car park where we'd left the car the night before was looking suspiciously empty and if my basic understanding of the signs were correct, the car park had been closed for the flower festival. Fearing we'd get a ticket we decided to move the car, and despite a comedy seven point turn when I went the wrong way, we found a parking space not too far away in one of the side streets.

We decided to climb one of the church towers to get an aerial view of town. There are a couple to choose from and, for not particular reason, we decide to climb Chiesa Santa Chiara and it was an excellent way to spend €2. We started the climb at the back of the church, emerging on a terrace which over looked the valley below. From their we walked along a passage to the front of the church and into a room which had a fantastic view of the church below.

We climbed up another level to a room filled with information boards about the church and then finally it was onto the roof for a spectacular view of Noto! We enjoyed the view in the blazing sun before retreating inside and back down to ground level.

We had some lovely ice cream before waving goodbye to Noto.

San Sabastian church in Palazzolo Acreidi
For the remainder of our holiday we'd booked to stay in the coastal town of Syracuse. As it was only 45mins away we decided to visit Palazzolo Acreidi on the way, another baroque town but one which gets only the briefest mention in the guide books.

Arriving in town we followed signs to the car park, only to arrive in a huge, empty wasteland surround by unattractive tower blocks and no obvious signage to the centre of town. Fearing the car might not be there when we got back we decided that we'd try and find another spot to park. We beached the car outside a museum, unsure of whether we were allowed to park there, and headed into town.
Notting Hill meets Palazzolo Acreide
I'm really surprised that Palazzolo Acreide isn't feature more prominently in the guide books as we had a wonderful afternoon there drifting round. We started with lunch in a little café called V'incanto just of the main square. Unbelievably we didn't take any photos of the food, but we both enjoyed our sandwiches in the courtyard looking at the baroque buildings surrounding us.

After lunch we headed across town the castle ruins that we'd seen on our map. Situated at the top of town with sweeping views of the valley below, the castle was deserted and we had it completely to ourselves for the half an hour or so that we were there. At some point there must have spent a bit of money stabilising the ruins and putting in walkways. I was quite surprised that there were no information boards giving details on the history of the castle as I am complete clueless as the origins of the place.
Castle ruins
On leaving the castle we headed back into town to collect the car and drove to the Akrai Greek Theatre which is located on the outskirts of town. In contrast to the castle, there was an office selling tickets and a whole six other people looking round the complex!

We started with the Greek theatre which is in very good condition (more through good fortune I think) and had been set up with a stage for some performances.
Teatro Grecco outside Palazzolo Acreidi
After the theatre we drifted round the rest of the, relatively extensive, site. We saw the below carving which was totally open to the elements and slowly weathering away. They obviously don't believe in preserving the carvings!

The site seems to be mainly a burial ground and there were several necropolises in caves (natural and hand carved around the site). I was also a fan of the Greek road that we saw.

Greek road
After around an hour looking round the site we jumped back into the car and headed for Syracuse. The drive to Syracuse was full of unnecessarily complicated road junctions and roundabouts. They do seem to love spending as much EU funding as possible on road junctions...

At one point we came up behind a cyclist who was doing close to 60 kph on his bike! We also passed through a police speed trap, but the oncoming cars had been madly flashing to warn us the speed trap was coming up. There is obviously no love lost with speed cameras!

I'd been worried about driving into Syracuse and finding a parking spot on the crowded island of Ortega where we were staying. Thankfully we navigated straight to the hotel and got a park spot just down the road from the hotel. The only excitement was going the wrong way down a one way street. We shouldn't have followed the hotel directions verbatim!

Monday, 20 July 2015

Ristorante Manna, Noto, Sicily

The bat in Risorante Mana, Noto
Ristorante Manna in Noto is a place that I could quite happily move into.

On our final evening in Noto we headed out to look for somewhere to eat. As we set out on our search we caught site of a stylish, empty looking bar through a narrow doorway, a few doors down from our hotel.

We continued our promenade round town and returned to Manna for dinner. The restaurant has the feel of somewhere that has recently opened, or been substantially refurbished, and it was like they'd done it exactly to our taste. Sleek, stylish interiors and carefully chosen bursts of colour created a very attractive dining room. I couldn't help myself but to have a look under the tables and chairs to see if I could find the manufacturers name. (Sadly I coudln't.)

It wasn't just about the interior though, Manna was our second 'expensive' meal of the holiday. The food had a different feel to anything else we ate during our time in Sicily. There was the same emphasis on local ingredients and good flavours, but everything was done with a little more finesse. The standard of the presentation was higher, there was a bit more technique on the plate and the service more attentive.

I recognised several of the same wines, at lower prices, that were on the wine list at Crocofiso where we'd eaten on our first night, reinforcing the feeling of value.

My photo taking and admiration of the interior hadn't been that subtle and at the end of the night the owner / manager offered to show us round the restaurant on the way out. I think she appreciated that we obviously loved the place as much as she did.

The bar

Codfish croquettes

Shaved articokes with Ragusano cheese and sun dried tomatoes in a tuile basket

Salt baked rabbit

Mixed fish of the day

Dark chocolate cake

Ricotta cheesecake

You can view everywhere we visited on our honeymoon on this map.

Ristorante Manna
Via Rocco Pirri 19