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Lest anyone think I only go to fancy Mexican restaurants, another really huge thing I miss from New York is the kind of taquería one finds in the back of some bodegas. Cheap, hearty and unfailingly delicious, the everyday Mexican lunch is a real madeleine for this former New Yorker. Yes, I know, LA friends will scoff and insist their taquerías are better. Sure, ok, you’re probably right. And it’s definitely the case that when I first moved to New York in the 1990s, you couldn’t find proper Mexican food in as many places as you can today. Puerto Rican food, surely, Cuban food yes, but not so much Mexican. All the same, the porky, fatty, spicy pleasures of really good tacos, tortas and other street foods were a distinctive part of my life in NYC and, it must be said, my life in Iowa City. Anywhere with a Mexican immigrant population is going to make this stuff very well indeed and you can’t really understand the craving for Mexican food until you’ve eaten this way. It’s something L and I discussed as we sat in the slightly chilly back garden of Fast and Fresh Burrito Deli in Boerum Hill: savvy entrepreneurs may have opened up a few chic Mexican restaurants in London, but because most Brits don’t have the everyday experience of cheap and good Mexican fast food to compare to, it’s not quite the same market. They’re selling a new ethnic cuisine, not an upmarket version of something that people already eat frequently.  Read the rest of this entry »

Every time I’m in New York I have a bit of an Asian food tour. There are old favourites – dim sum, banh hoi, and roti canai  joints that I go back to nostalgically – but I’m also always on the lookout for new trends in the world’s most exciting food town. This time, I went to one restaurant that was well planned and another that I heard about randomly from the most unlikely source. My friend N is not a foodie – I’m sure she likes good food just fine but it’s not really her thing and she’s picky about a lot of ingredients. Specifically, she won’t eat fish in any form so Southeast Asian cuisine is less than ideal for her. Nonetheless, it was N who tipped me off to Zabb Elee, an Isaan place in the East Village. She said it was ‘too Thai’ for her but that her friends were really into it. Thriled by the prospect of returning to the wonderful food of Northern Thailand, I popped in for lunch. Since I was on my own, I only got to try one dish and unsurprisingly I chose a somtam. What was surprising was that there is a whole somtam section on the menu, offering not just the usual westernized version but a whole slew of options, including hardcore options like whole pickled crab. I had somtam korat, with papaya, Thai eggplant, roasted peanuts and pla ra, or fermented fish. It was amazing – combining roasty nuts with just the right balance of sourness, a little sugar and lots of heat. The waitress did ask how spicy I wanted it and when I said Thai spicy, she actually seemed to believe me. The place has already generated quite a lot of discussion on Chowhound and other food-oriented blogs and, as far as I can tell, the adulation is well deserved. I only ate one dish but somtam is a good standard by which to judge a Thai restaurant and Zabb Elee was as good as the Chiang Mai back alley…

For dinner, we went in a more upscale direction. My host L arranged a meet up with C, a good friend of hers and old colleague of mine, and after a long day of touristing I was ready for some girl talk in a nice restaurant setting. They’d schemed up a booking at Talde, “Angry Dale” from Top Chef’s restaurant in Park Slope. I was always a fan of Dale – he never really seemed especially angry to me and certainly not the unpleasant bullying personality of certain Top Chef contestants, naming no names…His Filipino-inspired Asian-American food always looked really delicious on television; playful in the right way, creative without being contrived. I was excited to go there and C kept us entertained on the trip with stories about her dating adventures and a photo of her hot new boyfriend (not that kind of photo, people, get your minds out of the gutter!).

Talde is in a really pretty corner space, decorated simply with dark wood carvings and beams against white walls. We settled into a spacious and private wooden booth and got the evening going with Brooklyn Slings (gin, cherry liqueur, citrus bitters and pineapple juice). The appetisers were a mixed bag: pretzel dough pork dumplings were fine but not as pretzel-y as one might have hoped. They also came with a mustard dressing that made several appearances on other dishes and which I could have kind of done without. I get the concept of pretzels and mustard but it didn’t quite fly. Much more successful was the perilla leaf with toasted shrimp, coconut, peanuts and bacon tamarind caramel. I think this type of dish is where Talde soars: it seems like too many ingredients but the effect is perfectly orchestrated, utterly delicious and a sure sign that a flavour mixing genius is at work.

For mains, we also shared a bunch of dishes: barbecue pork ribs with watermelon and Thai basil, spicy roasted corn, and Korean fried chicken with kimchee flavoured yoghurt, grapes and mint. This latter was my favourite, the kimchee yoghurt more refined than standard kimchee but with much of the same piquancy, and the grapes an unexpected freshness in an otherwise quite substantial plate. All of the mains were good but they went right up to the edge of my salt tolerance. They weren’t over salted, but any more seasoning and they would have been.

When the waitress came to ask if we wanted dessert, we almost said no. She told us there was only one dessert available: halo halo. Now I’m not a huge fan of this classic Filipino dessert of shaved ice. I find the mix-ins of beans and corn to be not so dessert-y for my western palate and the sugary syrup conversely too sweet. I should have known better. Angry Dale was not about to make regular halo halo. No, this halo halo featured a lemongrass-kaffir lime-condensed milk syrup, wok-fried banana and pineapple, braised mango, tapioca pearls and, the kicker, Captain Crunch cereal. Now, I appreciate that this photograph makes it look a bit like canned sweetcorn and/or sick, but please trust me when I say that this was one of the best desserts EVER. As L pointed out, it’s kind of like we got high on LSD and decided to eat a bowl of breakfast cereal. It was funny, refined, indulgent and just really well-balanced all at once. It came in a giant mixing bowl with separate little rice bowls for serving and we cheerfully monstered our way through the whole thing. As we got up to leave, we saw Formerly Angry Dale chatting companionably with customers at other tables. Overall, Talde was perhaps not my favourite Asian food in New York but Dale is a brilliant food mixologist and I would come back for that halo halo in a heartbeat.

Zabb Elee, 75 Second Ave (between 4th and 5th) New York NY 10003

Talde, 369 Seventh Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11215

I’m in New York now, and staying with Lemur friend L in her lovely Brooklyn apartment with cat and laptop, so I’m hoping to catch up on some blogging. However, I still only have my shonky camera phone and emailing the pics to myself is kind of laborious, so I’m afraid my next few posts will not be awfully pretty. On top of this, I have an insane backlog of meals to write about, plus am gorging on the New York restaurant scene in an unseemly fashion, so there’s going to be more to write about than spare moments in my days. Sorry, but there are DVF dresses to buy, movies to see, and friends to catch up with out there in the city – that said, I simply must take a moment to evoke my extreme happiness at being back in a city with a proper Latin American food culture. New York, I am so very glad to be back… Read the rest of this entry »

Apologies for the radio silence. I’ve been travelling and experiencing technology fail. Last weekend I was in the bosom of my family enjoying a very classy meal for Lemur Mama’s 75th birthday (should I be keeping that number a secret? Oh well, it’s out now) and now I am in Boston at a conference. Both trips have lots of food to report, from giant American breakfasts to upscale Italian and Chilean sandwiches. But there is one small glitch: I made the mistake of relying on my iPad to blog while away. For reasons to boring to go into, it made sense not to travel with my laptop and I thought I could blog from the iPad as I’ve done it before. That was with the technical support of Mr Lemur, though, and I have rapidly come to realise that without his smarts, an iPad is mostly just a very heavy copy of the New Yorker.

I can’t for the life of my get photos from my phone to the iPad. Oh, I have the right software. I downloaded an app. It doesn’t work. I am filled with hate. In any case, my photos are crummy because I scratched the lens of my phone, but I figured we could all cope with that for a couple of weeks. Besides, flare is arty, right? But it’s all moot because the photos remain stubbornly on one Apple product while the blogging software is on the other. Maybe a Skype conversation with Mr Lemur will fix all this but otherwise I’ll have to wait till I get home to catch up on the American culinary adventures. In the meantime, I’ll jusy say that while Boston may not be as exciting a food city as New Orleans, I have had the best cauliflower ever, roasted till charred, swimming in garlic and olive oil and liberally doused in parmesan. So not all bad…

I was quite excited to see the Masterchef finalists go to Thailand the other week. Obviously, this was mostly so that I could feel superior to their bungling attempts to make somtam, since the Chiang Mai market cooking challenge was one of the few I could reasonably imagine doing well on. For foreign readers who have not experienced the pleasure of watching Greg and John shout at hapless cooks, I should explain that many of their challenges involve cooking buckets of sponge pudding for soldiers or making high-end dinners for picky aristocrats. Even though some of my favourite past contestants have focused on Thai or Japanese food, the show does tend to emphasise knowledge of ‘honest’ aka British cuisine. Watching them battling with khao soi in Chiang Mai was a rare moment of ‘hey, I can make that!’.

Even better, though, was their trip into the mountains of Northern Thailand, where the food they cooked looked really delicious. One dish began with fermented fish in a curry paste – although I don’t have fermented fish to hand, I really liked the idea of a curry with fish as a base flavour rather than as a main ingredient. I loved the Northern-style curries we ate in Chiang Mai so the episode prompted me to experiment. What I came up with was a properly spicy vegetable curry infused with the umami richness of smoked fish and fermented soy. The recipe is pretty flexible: you could add meat or reduce the chilies. But it is meant to be spicy rather than sweet so don’t hold back too much…

Read the rest of this entry »

You wouldn’t necessarily notice that the Kemp Cafe is Turkish at all. Most of the posters in the windows advertise baguettes, filled rolls and cooked breakfast, and, both times I’ve been there that’s what the customers have been eating too. But right after the place opened, I saw a woman sitting in the window rolling flatbreads. In one of those moments when you just have to investigate despite not actually being hungry, I went in and discovered that yes, those were Turkish bureks (filled with feta, spinach and chili) and yes, they were as homemade and delicious as you might imagine. I’ve been back twice for lunch and eaten the meze, which are tucked away on the right hand side of the menu, after all the British standards. There aren’t a lot of choices, but that’s because you’re eating what the owner has cooked that day. It’s small scale, homely, and no less pleasing for that.

The first time, I had a green bean and tomato salad, roasted aubergine and courgette, and couscous. All were really good but the couscous was transformative. I’ve never been a massive fan of couscous: I find it dry and the texture unpleasantly granular. But I’ve still eaten it a fair few times as I like North African food. This was by a factor of infinity the best couscous I’ve ever eaten. Moist, richly flavoured, obviously cooked in some ambrosial broth, I could have eaten it by the bowlful. Someone here is a really good cook.

But lovely as the meze were, what charmed us the most was the warm Turkish welcome. The owners are just lovely; obviously happy to share their cuisine with customers and rightly proud of what they serve. The first time I ate there, one of the owners stopped by our table with a plate of yoghurt topped with herbs and chili flakes. Eaten with bread and honey, it was a perfect complement to the rich tomato dishes.

The next time I visited, a plate of vine leaves appeared, unordered, and fresh out of the oven, at our table. Filled with nutty rice and rolled thin, they were irresistibly toothsome.

The owners have obviously decided that Turkish food is not enough to sustain their business and they want to be a local caff for people in the neighbourhood. Hence the emphasis on traditional British food. It’s probably a smart move: they’re far enough into Kemptown that they won’t catch too much foot traffic from the city centre and a new ethnic restaurant is a dicey proposition in a recession. The welcome is warm for everyone, and if you enjoy Turkish food, then so much the better. Moreover, both the meze and the bureks are vegetarian, another plus for the many Brighton veggies out there. Kemp Cafe is unassuming and the food simple, but if home-cooked Turkish meze sounds appealing, then it is absolutely worth a detour.

(This one was for Mr Lemur, obviously!)

Kemp Cafe, Upper St James St (on the corner of Wyndham St), Brighton

I love my local butcher. I went in for some beef for a Vietnamese salad, but noticed while I was there some lovely fresh looking oxtail. I have a general policy of buying things like this, that you don’t see all the time, whenever I have the chance, so I had him parcel me up several meaty chunks of tail. He asked if I’d been to The Chili Pickle restaurant – I have, of course, and blogged about it to boot – and said they do a great oxtail madras and I might consider an Indian approach to my oxtail. Brilliant!

As luck would have it, I found The Chili Pickle’s oxtail madras recipe when I was poking around for inspiration, or at least some version of it. It looks amazing but a bit cheffy. There’s not really a world in which I’m going to braise meat for hours and then strain the liquid, only to start again making a whole new sauce. I mean maybe, for company, but not on a weeknight. The whole fecking point of a braise is that you can go away and forget about it and then, magically, there’s sticky delicious meat and a sauce. Also, given that I couldn’t start cooking till after work, we’d have been eating at midnight if the end of the braise was just the starting point of a whole new cooking phase. So in the interests of Mr Lemur’s stomach, I decided to make a simpler take on the oxtail madras. I’m not sure that it still qualifies as a madras after my tinkering so I’m just going to call it an oxtail curry. Read the rest of this entry »

I was having a late afternoon tea with the lovely V today (vegan chocolate cake for her and pita with babaganoush for me, the non-sweet toothed party) when she mentioned she’s planning a trip to Barcelona by train. I love overnight train journeys and our conversation reminded me of the fantastic leg of our Thailand trip from Chiang Mai to Bangkok by train.

I’m already well-disposed to sleeper trains: the whole thing evokes either the romance of private cabins (think North by Northwest) or the communal fun of berths with curtains (Some Like it Hot). This journey was more along the Some Like it Hot lines and it was completely splendid. First of all, Thai trains are simultaneously old-fashioned and wonderful. The ceiling fans might or might not work and you’ll be lucky to have a/c but everything is comfortable and passengers are incredibly well looked after. Someone cleaned the floor at least three times during our journey and staff pass up and down the aisles constantly selling drinks. But the best part was when they made our beds for us. When you signalled a desire to sleep, someone would appear and, Transformers-style, turn your four-seater table set up into cosy bunk beds with curtains. I don’t know how they did it, it was so fast. The table was folded into the floor. A mattress came out of the wall. Linens appeared from nowhere. It was awesome.

But before we went to bed, there was dinner to consider. I actually think the food on the Thai rail system was some of the best I ate, possibly because it wasn’t aimed at tourists. We did have to combat the farang menu situation – the Thai and English language menus were different, naturally – but once we got the Thai menu translated, we picked from a simple selection of curries and stir fries. I ordered something like pad krapow with chicken and it was so good. It’s hard to imagine that something in a little airline food tray could ever be good, much less something you order on a train. (British train food makes me shudder.) But it was.

It was full of green peppercorns, crunchy long beans and Thai basil, and it came with a side dish of chopped chilies in fish sauce and vinegar. I know it looks a bit oily but it was a nice slick of good chili oil, and the overall effect wasn’t at all fatty.

Sadly, some of my travel companions really couldn’t tolerate any level of spiciness and I ended up eating some of their food too. (Sadly for them, but obviously I was completely happy to be trying more dishes.) I think I had the best night’s sleep of the whole trip on that train. The rhythm and sound of its repetitive movements, plus the delicious food and cosy berths must have lulled me into a state of complete relaxation. Hmm, perhaps time to think about some more train-based travel..

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