Monday, November 30, 2015

Jin Go Gae

The weather has taken a severe nosedive lately. The Met Office reports are lousy with innocuous-sounding storm names (I mean, Clodagh? Sounds like an affable nanny with a proclivity for jelly-making, not torrential rain and 80mph gales). Basically, winter is upon us and while there's still a day to go until I fully embrace the mulled wine, Christmas movies and rampant carol-singing, I welcome any food capable of warming me up with the most open of arms. And it turns out Korean food does the job incredibly well.

Somewhat miraculously, I've managed to avoid Korean food for the past 23 years. Naturally, I was determined that my first experience of the food of Joseon should be excellent, and, convinced by London Eater's glowing review, settled on a trip to Jin Go Gae with Angela. So it was that I found myself making the hour-long trek down to New Malden on a rainy November evening...

To start, a host of various Ban-chan pickles (see top) arrived at our table - kimchi, kat-tu-gui (mooli), suk ju namul (beansprouts). I'd always been slightly wary of kimchi as I don't usually go for pickles, but I loved it all. I was also struck by the generosity of our hosts in bringing these, alongside a small bowl of rice, on the house - something Angela assures me is traditional. In the pickles' wake came 'yuk whe' - thin strips of beef sashimi accompanied by thinly sliced pear, pine nuts and, of course, a fresh egg yolk stirred in. This dish was quite simply the bomb. And this is coming from someone who's not a huge lover of steak tartare. The addition of the pear lent the beef an unexpected freshness and sweetness that had me digging in for seconds, thirds, fourths...

Next came par-jeon - delightfully crispy, flavourful seafood pancakes filled with spring onions, crabstick and squid. Simply delicious.  

Kan poon-gi - deep-fried chicken with sweet and sour sauce. Turns out Korean Fried Chicken is my new favourite KFC. Chewy, crisp and packed with spicy flavour, these were unfairly addictive.

I was less sure about this 'Sundae' soup (a world away from the caramel-drizzled sundaes of your childhood, before you ask): a broth filled with steamed homemade sausages, spring onions and pork. It was definitely interesting to try the sausages - these ones were stuffed with glass noodles, sticky rice, vegetables and soybean paste, something I've never seen before! However, the broth itself was incredibly peppery but otherwise unseasoned; the diner is encouraged to eat the soup alongside tiny salty preserved prawns. An intriguing experience, but to be honest, outshone by the other dishes.

Such as this one. Definitely edging into the limelight of the yuk whe, Jin Go Gae's jap-chae was stunning. Glass noodles sprinkled with sesame seeds and pan-fried with vegetables and beef, these were so sticky and rich in umami flavours, I could have cried. Absolutely fantastic. 

Jin Go Gae has something for everyone - the Korean food virgin, like me, or the seasoned eater, like Angela, who proclaimed the food better than the Korean joints in central London. Even though we over-ordered (with lucky me getting to take a couple of our leftovers home in a doggy bag), Angela and I barely scratched the surface of the menu - we didn't try bibimbap, barbecued kalbi or any of the hotpot soups. And yet I know that had we ordered any of these they would have been just as memorable as our dishes, because I can tell that Jin Go Gae has incredibly high, consistent standards. It's why the restaurant entertained an almost exclusively Korean clientele on our visit - the cognoscenti know that this place is at the top of its game. It's 100% worth the journey to K-Town, aka New Malden. I'll need to make another jaunt south of the river for a fix soon, because be warned - (yes, Korean food obsessives, you may roll your eyes at my naïvety now) - this stuff is addictive. 

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Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Santorini α: Settling Into Paradise

Earlier this year, as summer gave way to autumn, we escaped the big smoke for what must surely be one of the most beautiful islands on earth: Santorini.

Each of us had a myriad of reasons for needing to be away from London, and honestly, this little slice of heaven on earth is an ideal cure for those with heavy hearts and souls. After much deliberation, we chose Amber Light Villas as our base. A short drive from Imerovigli, it's on the non-caldera side of the island, and while this means it doesn't get the stunning sunsets you might associate with Santorini, it's blissfully quiet and devoid of the tourists who are actually allowed to traipse through the hotels on the caldera side. With wonderfully attentive staff, delicious breakfasts, a huge and mostly deserted pool and fantastic spa, I can unreservedly say that this is a perfect, luxurious choice for guests seeking rest and recuperation. 

Our suite was airy and tranquil, with our own little private pool and gazebo to eat (the excellent room service food) under. On the first night we were gifted a complimentary bottle of wine; cakes, honeyed almonds and baklava followed on the nightly turning down service. 

I spent many a contented hour lounging by the pool reading (J.G. Ballard's The Drowned World for my first few days, a terrifying fantasy of a swampy, submerged London), listening to music and being transfixed by miniature battles between lizards and their insect prey.

Arriving after dark on our first night, we ventured out to the nearby town of Fira to feast on mashed fava beans, cheesy shrimp saganaki and endless seafood at Argo. In the dark, it was impossible to tell just how beautiful the caldera was (though that's a story for my next post!)

The next day, after a morning of relaxing, we headed to Pyrgos, in the middle of the island. First on the agenda was a stroll around the monastery of Prophet Elias, perched on top of a mountain. You can't get much more remote than that. And remoteness from all things social media, Wi-Fi and other people is an ideal way to reconnect with one's spirituality...

Next we descended into the village below, where I promptly bought a sunhat to protect myself from the sunlight, which was strong even in September. Also bought: one big bag of pistachios, endemic to the area and thus cheap - and addictive. Thirsty from our time up at the monastery, we followed signs to a 'Franco's Café' through the town, passing through winding alleys, climbing up painted steps...

...making one friend...

...then another (I felt very sorry for this piteous-looking gentleman.)

Finally we got to Franco's, and boy, was it worth the walk. Ella Fitzgerald crooned softly from the speakers, the juice was cold and fresh, the biggest basil plant I've ever seen sat in the window, and...

...this monster was on the menu! So yummy, and the Santorini tomatoes were as fresh as you'd expect, positively bursting with flavour.

As the sun crept towards the horizon, we made our way to a restaurant the hotel had booked for us: Selene. Little did we know that it was one of the best restaurants in the Cyclades. There isn't a Michelin Star system in Santorini, but if there was, this place would surely have one. And we rolled up all dusty and red in the face from our walk, wearing Birkenstocks, shorts and t-shirts. Not exactly prepared for the elegant, sophisticated meal that was about to go down. Well, that's what I get for not doing my research...

But all my cares over suitable attire went out of the window when I saw my first Santorini sunset.

I felt there was a delicacy to all of Selene's dishes, evident in their conception, cooking and presentation. This is something that many restaurants in Santorini aspire to but don't quite hit the mark (something I can vouch for, as you will see in my upcoming posts!) Selene, however, is the real deal. My starter - scallops with crab, chickpeas, zucchini, ginger and cocoa butter - was truly delicious. 

Pappardelle with cuttlefish, broccoli cream, tomato confit and anthotiro cheese.

My first taste of Santorini wine.

'Piglet' - with potato foam, chips, a wine reduction, pitta bread, baked onion, garlic butter and a tomato marmalade. 

'Sea bass' - perched on a sea urchin risotto, with compressed fennel and a truffle cream with vinsanto.

'Rabbit stifado' - rabbit three ways. I loved the presentation of this dish, with blobs of red sweet pepper ketchup, peach compote, onion dolmas and rosemary oil. Just beautiful.

And finally, dessert. Always the highlight of a meal for me, and particularly so here. The 'Lemon' was playful and clever - two halves of a lemon, one filled with lemon buttercream, mizithra cheese mousse and Italian meringue, and the other with a brilliantly chilly sorbet with mojito and green apple flavours. Exactly what you need on a warm summer's evening. 

B's choice reflected her ordering style over the years - always something fruity, and usually sorbet) - whereas mine was totally me - creamy and chocolatey. The 'Loukoumas', a deep-fried dough ball packed with molten chocolate and salted caramel, resting in a bath of spiced crème anglaise and black cherry, could not have been more up my street if it tried.

Our first couple of days in Santorini were a dream - but then again, so were the next few days...and the next. I hope you don't mind that I've waited so many months to post about the trip! I didn't want these posts getting mixed up with my blogging about Sicily, and I thought that the pictures of this sun-drenched paradise might be welcome in the deep midwinter. And they are...but if you're anything like me, they'll also have induced a deep sense of longing and wanderlust. Next stop, the magical and much-Instagrammed town of Oia!

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Thursday, November 19, 2015

Zelman Meats

A mere few weeks after Beast, I had the pleasure of making the acquaintance of another scion of the Goodman family. Tucked away on St. Anne's Court, Zelman Meats represents the more carnivorous reincarnation of Rex & Mariano. Still in its opening month, it's already attracted a following among the foodie crowd - and for good reason.

The seating of four ravenous ladies around one table - Yee, Steph, Danni and myself - led to the somewhat fateful decision to order almost everything on the menu. Cue a table absolutely groaning with protein and well-crafted cocktails. Exactly what the doctor ordered for a school night. 

To start: Rex and Mariano's greatest hits, compiled into a medley of cracking starters: the famously sweet Sicilian gamberi rossi, cooked and raw oysters and a caprese salad topped with burrata.

Doing backstroke in olive oil and lemon juice, I could see why these were a hit in the days of R&M. 

Not all oysters are created equal. These baked critters, hot to the touch and topped with 'Holy F**k' sauce and crispy breadcrumbs, were particularly special. 

Next came the big guns. A litany of sides, and more meat than you could shake a stick at. 

A special shout out must go to the luxurious truffle chips, topped with generous shavings of black truffle. I was also a fan of the smooth mash and salad - the latter absolutely needed to combat the inevitable meat sweats.

But let's be honest. Meat like this is honestly worth sweating over. This heavenly short-rib is the sort of hunk you'd like to strike up a relationship with. Smoky and tender, the meat falls off the bone in a way that would bring a tear to the eye of any self-respecting carnivore.

Slow-roasted, barbecued picanha. This had the right colour but was resoundingly eclipsed by the mighty short-rib. I did hear diners on other tables murmuring appreciatively over these, so it could be that our table just got the runt of the litter - or perhaps we're just short rib gals.

Yup. Definitely short rib gals. Things got a little medieval at this stage of the evening. All we needed to complete the experience were hounds lying on the rushes at our feet, eagerly awaiting our bones and scraps...

...or dessert. Dessert works equally well. I believe the Zelman Meats menu changes up regularly where it comes to pud. The night we went we were treated to a homely apple pie with an indulgent dollop of cream and vanilla ice cream. Lipsmackingly good, and a perfectly American way to round off a meal of Desperate Dan proportions.

With a cool refurb, and, more importantly, a menu with great value, Zelman Meats is sure to be a strong contender on the Soho food scene. The Goodman restaurants know what they do best, and that's why their patrons return time and time again. What I particularly like is that for one night, Zelman's diners are citizens of the world. You step in from the bustle of a typical London passage, greeted by modern Mexican art, slide into French bistro-like banquette seats, and order food that is unfettered in terms of location. I started out on the coast of Sicily with gamberi rossi and burrata and ended up on a dusty cattle ranch in Texas, having just polished off a short rib and apple pie. And there was absolutely nothing strange about that. ZM, I'll be back for more.

Disclaimer: I was lucky enough to dine as a guest of Zelman Meats on this occasion. My opinions, as always, remain my own.

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