Monthly Archives: March 2012
When we first moved to Maida Vale some years ago, Monsieur and I missed having a sushi bar within easy reach of chez nous. To eat Japanese at the weekend, we’d have to travel. Not as far as Tokyo, of course, but across a postcode or two. Sometimes, that’s not what you need at the end of a long week, when the footstool beckons and the only exercise you feel like doing is punching numbers into the phone and asking someone else to do the cooking, so you can just about imagine our delight when a small Japanese eatery called Maguro opened within easy walking distance of home. It didn’t take us long to get down there to test their foreign fare.
The first couple of times we visited Maguro, it was to dine in the restaurant. The wood-panelled interior is so small that it must have been modelled on Japanese spaces – with only room enough for 20 or so covers. Having said that, over time we’ve noticed that during hours of service, Maguro rarely has room for more than a couple of walk-ins, if that. The staff battle for room to serve and clear and even enter the kitchen, which is miniature, and the conveniences hide away in authentic fashion behind a long Japanese curtain at the back of the long dining room. In spite of such restrictions on the possibility of some active cat-swinging, Maguro successfully produces faultless cuisine without interruption. This is proof that size really does not matter.
Unfortunately for lazybones us, Maguro doesn’t deliver (yet) so we dutifully call our order through in advance before setting off to collect our food. Monsieur and I toss a coin for the pleasure of stretching our legs, but invariably we are more motivated than usual to move ourselves, inspired by the pleasure potential of the meal ahead.
Here’s a sample of what we had for our eat-in Friday night ‘date’ last week:
Agedashi tofu. If I tell you that I could visit Maguro for their agedashi tofu alone, you might begin to understand just how good the Maguro version is. The tofu is always piping hot in a delicious gelatinous tempura sauce. I usually don’t do gelatinous unless it’s in a pudding, so take it from me: it’s gotta be good if I like it here.
From left to right: pork gyoza (they also come in prawn, chicken or vegetable. My favourite is the prawn but they’re all very good). Shumai - steamed dumplings filled with a blend of snow crab, salad onions and something called ‘tobiko’ – flying fish roe. Served warm, each shumai provides a perfect mouthful of the subtlest seafood sensation. Last, but not least, tori niku BBQ: barbecue chicken with onion and capsicum - ideal with plain rice. They don’t skimp on the sauce here - there’s always plenty to coat the tender bite-size strips of chicken. The after-burn is just hot enough to be interesting without necessitating a long squirt from the nearest fire extinguisher.
Maguro Tataki: a seared salmon sashimi with ponzu sauce. Each piece of sashimi rests on a bed of finely-grated white radish. A truly refreshing combination of taste and texture.
Maguro yukke – sashimi grade tuna, chopped and tossed in a sesame soy sauce with finely chopped salad onions and pine nuts. Stab at the raw quail’s egg to release the yolk and mix through before eating. A cool, fresh, tangy taste of Asia.
Kani kara age – soft shell crab. Maguro dips the crab pieces in tempura batter and lightly fries them – served with the sort of light horseradish sauce that should be bottled and sold in its own right.
Last, but not least, Maguro’s black cod. This version easily matches Nobu’s signature version. It flakes into morsels with the barest suggestion of a chopstick’s touch, not to mention that the miso paste marinade is one of the best I’ve ever tasted.
Over time, Monsieur and I have tried a fair number of items on Maguro’s menu, including teriyaki salmon, the sashimi platter, salmon tartare which has a proper heat to it – most unusual, and the tuna tartare. Even the house salad is worthy of praise. It’s a great destination for anyone watching their weight and offers plenty of choice for vegetarian friends. The myriad menu options cater for all depths of pocket, from shallow to bottomless. The lunchtime Bento boxes are great value, and the set dinners are competitive, but if you want to push the boat out and order the likes of Kobe beef sashimi or foie gras and hotate (seared scallop) it’s definitely possible to rack up quite a bill here.
Drinks are as you’d expect – Japanese beer (Asahi), a selection of warm and cold sakes, plum wine and green tea, along with a small but carefully-chosen wine list and all the regular soft drinks (orange juice, diet soda, mineral water etc).
Sadly, Monsieur and I will be leaving W9 later on this year. We’re ready for a change of scene but we’d feel even better about our future postcode if we knew that Maguro was moving with us. As that’s unlikely, we’ll just have to trek back to the old ‘hood once in a while to ensure that standards aren’t slipping, but for now we’re determined to make the most of our current proximity to this gem of a restaurant, with the project of working our way through as much of the extensive menu before we move. In fact, on writing this, I’ve decided where we’ll have our last supper before the removal van arrives and this is one decision I won’t have to check with Monsieur. As long as the black cod’s still on Maguro’s menu, you can count him in.
Maguro - 5 Lanark Place, London W9 1BT, tel 020 7289 4353
Last April, Monsieur and I visited Rome and were completely robbed at one establishment where the €20.00 menu served the sort of lifeless food that I wouldn’t give to my dead grandmother. A man, claiming to be a patron of the restaurant, then started harassing me online, stating that I was mistaken about said establishment and should retract the review. I ignored him. Later, the same man, now purporting to be the restaurant owner, threatened me with legal action if I didn’t remove the blog post concerned. He kindly pointed out that I shouldn’t expect much for €20.00 a head (without drinks) anywhere in Europe. I beg to differ.
Living in London means that I’m well-accustomed to the price of everything, especially as my salary has been frozen for what seems like forever, whilst prices in England’s capital continue to rise. Anyone who knows me knows that I was born with The Thrifty Gene, meaning that I seek out a bargain wherever I can and that approach to life extends to food and all manner of things culinary.
Certainly, for birthdays and anniversaries and holidays and the like Monsieur and I like to spend a bit more than usual. However, we also watch both sides of every coin, as a rule, allowing us to afford those treats; the fact that they don’t fall on every single day of the calendar year means that we only appreciate them more. The rest of the time, we remain careful about how much we spend and where, and most of the time we have great success at getting the most out of a €20.00 per head meal. Brunching last summer in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, we did incredibly well out of an €18.00 set menu, which then set us up for the entire day. Bargain. Check out what was included:
- 1 hot drink – either tea or coffee or hot chocolate
- 1 fresh fruit juice – orange or grapefruit
- Fresh pastries – a selection
- Bread, butter and jams
- Pancakes with maple syrup
- Muesli, fromage blanc and fruit
So far, so good, right? Right.
But wait, Mesdames et Messieurs, there’s more.
Then you could order an egg – either boiled, fried, fried with bac0n, scrambled or scrambled with bacon.
And we’re not finished yet. Lastly, you could add your choice from the ‘French Touch’ menu, listing items that would cost you €6 to €8.00 if you ordered à la carte. Here’s the selection:
Plate of cooked meats OR foie gras terrine OR beef carpaccio OR chipolatas and what they call ‘sits frizzles’ (whatever that is) OR tart of the day OR plate of cheese OR smoked salmon.
Trust me, Saint-Rémy isn’t cheap but this brunch menu, available at weekends year-round and every day during July and August, provided excellent value. Who says you can’t eat well for €20.00 a head in Europe? Here are some photos of what we had:
Here we have the muesli with fromage blanc, topped with fresh fruit salad, a smart little tray of nutella, maple syrup and a honey (for the pancakes), a delicious mixed-fruit smoothie that magically appeared in addition to our hot drinks and juices, smoked salmon tartare topped with a delicious but superfluous mint chantilly and the classic boiled egg with soldiers.
Spot the difference? On this occasion, Monsieur chose the fried egg with bacon.
There was a generous basket of soft, warm pastries to share, with wonderful bread and breadsticks.
The coffee came in generous boules, the grapefruit juice tasted freshly-squeezed, and in case Nutella, syrup and honey didn’t provide enough choice with which to slather your morning pancakes and tartines, also provided were two jams and a marmalade in a trio of glass verrines.
Besides the excellent food that Monsieur and I had the pleasure to enjoy at le Grain de Sel, the staff were warm, the location central and the presentation of everything showed the seriousness with which food was treated by all who worked here. We returned three mornings in a row and highly recommend it to anyone having the fortune to visit Saint-Rémy-de-Provence.
FYI – I just checked the prices on the Grain de Sel website and they haven’t risen a sou since last July. Bonus! See for yourself here - Le Grain de Sel.
Recently, I was chatting with @champagnediet on Twitter and mentioned my recent experimentation with a bottle of bubbly in the kitchen. I’d made a truly scrummy dish of scallops and king prawns in a champagne and cream sauce – plenty for two people as a light evening meal, or a decadent starter if you’re hungry. Anyway, I promised @champagnediet I’d send her the recipe for her site, which focusses on how to eat (and live) well without over-indulging. Then I thought it would also be a good idea to share it here.
This dish is ready in a flash. There’s next to no preparation time – just as long as it takes to get everything out of the fridge and chop the onions. Cooking time is max 10 minutes.
200g king prawns, uncooked and 200g fresh scallops, coral removed. In the UK queen scallops are good for this recipe as they’re smaller, but king scallops would work just as well, only you might need a minute or two more to cook through.
**(Please do ensure that the seafood is as fresh as it possibly can be. The champagne component in this recipe is too expensive to waste on close-to-expiry-date produce!)
3 Tablespoons of butter
A dash of light olive oil
1/4 cup of sliced salad onions (aka scallions for our American friends)
2/3 cup of champagne – don’t skimp. This has to be the real deal! I’ve tested with bubbly alternatives and the taste is still nice but not as good.
3/4 cup of reduced fat crème fraîche
Salt and pepper to taste
Take a frying pan and melt 1 Tbsp of butter, adding a dash (literally) of light olive oil to prevent scorching.
Add the chopped salad onions and stir over medium heat for 1 minute, no longer. We want them to retain their colour if possible.
Slowly pour in the champagne and allow to reduce to approximately one third, stirring occasionally.
Add the seafood and stir until the prawns have turned pink (2-3 minutes).
Add the crème fraîche and stir until the cream has combined with the butter and seafood juices and now coats the seafood easily. Allow the mixture to simmer for a few minutes. Stir regularly during this time, then add the remaining butter and stir through until the sauce thickens slightly.
Season to taste.
Garnish with a sprig of dill or sprinkling of chopped chives. Serve immediately, preferably with a flute of the leftover champers! Et voilà!
Marseille: an ancient city renowned for many things, among which number its huge commercial port, a small crime problem, the legendary Château d’If and fine bouillabaisse. The city lent its name to the French national anthem, la Marseillaise, pastis was born here and Marcel Pagnol took childhood walks in the lush Parc Borély. I suggest that we add to this hall of fame the Hotel Pullman Marseille Palm Beach, where Monsieur and I splurged for a night of luxury during our South of France ‘vacances’ last year.
Even for we two inveterate travellers, it had been a long day. We’d driven up from the Camargues, lunched at a sleepy Martigues and screeched into the last boat trip of the day around the calanques near the pretty port of Cassis. The driving in the vicinity of such a natural wonder is reputed to be fraught with tempers frayed by battles fought over parking spaces; sadly, we’d found it to be exactly so, yet somehow managed to escape without a single dent in our fender. Leaving the beauty behind as we entered the messy sprawl of the outskirts of Marseille, we were intent on a night of calm and relaxation. Fortunately, once we found the Pullman Hotel, calm and relaxation is exactly what we enjoyed.
I say ‘once we found’ because the Pullman is James Bond-esque in the way that it hides behind a curve in the Corniche, sinking its storeys below the coastal thoroughfare so that it’s barely visible from the road. We, as many others must have done before us, drove straight on past the entrance before recognising our mistake and navigating a U turn – no mean feat in the early evening rush of traffic – to return to our abode for the night.
A porter swiftly separated luggage from vehicle as a valet disappeared with the car down a ramp into what could have been Hades for all we knew – via the entrance to what we deduced must be the subterranean car park - very 007 once again. Inside, a vast lobby was populated by three or four staff and one of those life-size sculptures of a cow wearing far splashier colours than might be expected in your average milking shed. Elsewhere, the furniture was über chic in the fashion of a deconstructed Mondrian (read: hard-cornered squares and rectangles in primary colours) but quite uncomfortable looking – the subliminal message being that this was not a place to get cosy, although the view across the bay was spectacular and it would be quite possible to spend a couple of hours sitting here watching ships and yachts navigating the busy bay.
Fortunately, our room had its own, private view out to sea, and a balcony from which to enjoy it at our leisure. It was a hot evening, hazy and vaguely rose-tinted. We watched stand-up paddlers taking advantage of the calm waters.
Looking to our right the Corniche snaked against the coast, a gigantic propeller blade rising in dark silhouette against the sunset; this was the 1971 oeuvre of Marseille’s sculptor son, César, honouring the repatriation of people from North Africa to France.
To wash off the day’s accumulation of salt and sweat, we took a dip in the Pullman’s pool, which looked like this:
It was big enough to accommodate pre-dinner swimmers of all ages, from pre-schooler to retiree, and the water was just the right type of cool.
Later, as Monsieur and I basked in the last of the day’s sun, we flicked through guides in an attempt to decide how and where to dine. In the end, room service won. We would sup in our bathrobes, with the unsurpassable vista visible from our balcony, gathering strength for the serious task of exploring Marseille the next day.
The doorbell rang and our evening meal arrived. Seconds later, Monsieur settled down with comfort food: a burger and plump, golden fries with a verrine of coleslaw in a nod to the possibility of fresh produce, even if it hadn’t been ordered in quantity tonight.
I stuck to lighter fare. The smoked salmon was delicious, served with mini-blinis, a dollop of taramasalata and another of soft, herbed cheese. The salad leaves were unusually unblemished, natural, sans vinaigrette.
Then I allowed myself a small plate of cheese.
A glass of crisp, chilled white wine completed the experience.
And so, when last in Marseille, Monsieur and I unabashedly enjoyed our room service supper in our own time, watching all manner of seafaring vessel criss-crossing the bay as the sun sank in the west. It was the epitome of a holiday dining experience: good, simple food, great view, the privacy of our own room and no glad rags required. Not to mention the double bill of Engrenages (Spiral) on TV. A perfect evening, indeed.
It was nearing the end of our ‘vacances’ in the South of France last summer and we spent our last morning visiting the town famed for brocante: L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue. Walking through the picturesque centre-ville, that day brimming with parading brass bands in competition, their supporters and weekend visitors like ourselves, we’d worked up quite an appetite. Rather than stay in town, which offered a fair number of riverside terrace restaurants with postcard views, Monsieur and I drove back into the surrounding countryside, to visit Restaurant La Villa.
Initially, we thought we might have been lost, because the area in which this restaurant is located is so very residential that garden play-sets are visible from the street. We continued with the directions, until we found a gate and a huge, grassy parking area, more like a massive lawn than a place to leave cars. Beyond the car park was another surprise: a large swimming pool, dangerously inviting on such a blistering day, but had we come to the right place? Was this an eatery or was it someone’s home?
At the swimming pool all became clear; to one side lay bronzed patrons, basking on loungers; to the other were tables in the shade of an awning – there, we would dine. Practically all of the terrace tables were taken. There were more seating areas inside, but no one wants to be overly sheltered on such a halcyon day; the interior was devoid of life. Fortunately, the warm waiter who greeted us only shook his head for the briefest of moments when we admitted we had no reservation. Weekend lunches here in summer are usually fully booked, he explained, yet he found us a table and, unbidden, located a fan to keep us cool.
This dragonfly was mesmerising. She clung to the fan to cool herself before flitting off around the pool, only to return moments later for a refresher.
The menu was far from exhaustive, allowing Monsieur and I to make our choices with some speed. We were ravenous by this stage, in spite of the heat. I decided on the seafood salad, while Monsieur probed our waiter about the cut of pork and which part of the beast it hailed from. Taking Monsieur’s shoulder, the waiter caressed it a little too attentively as he explained exactly which body part Monsieur would be eating. From across the table, my husband flashed me a look of bemusement and I stifled a giggle. Our waiter was absolutely lovely, very gay and, now it appeared, rather tactile when it came to explaining the source of his meats. If only all wait-staff could be like him, we’d be very happy diners indeed!
My seafood salad kept me silent for quite some time. It was much larger than I’d anticipated and consisted of powerfully fresh ingredients which were beautifully presented.
The king prawns were succulent in the extreme, anchovies on a perfectly golden crouton were a contrast to the rest of the salad in both texture and saltiness and the scallops had been seared with skill, retaining a silken consistency which gave them bounce in the mouth. No complaints from me. The dragonfly continued to come and go from the fan. I didn’t blame her; it certainly was hot.
Too hot (in my opinion) for what Monsieur chose to eat: a ‘plume’ of pork, from Mont Ventoux,(a regional mountain of note where the pigs must be happy with their lot, making them taste better) served with aubergines and sautéed potatoes.
Monsieur and I cleared our plates, coughed up the requisite Euros, thanked our charming waiter, left the sun worshippers behind and set off for Avignon and our last night of vacation. We had a wonderful evening planned, replete with ‘last supper’, but for now our appetites were sated and we could travel happy.
**In summary: Restaurant La Villa serves excellent food without pretention or attitude. A wonderfully relaxed setting in which to chill out of a weekend. In case of disappointment, I wouldn’t recommend chancing it like we did; definitely book in advance for weekend brunch in the summer.
Restaurant La Villa,A750 Avenue Jean Monnet, 84800 L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, France