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Dukes-at-Komedia

As a film-loving Brightonian, I’ve long been a fan of the Duke of York’s cinema, but it has always struggled with the size limitations of the admittedly lovely building. Late last year, they opened up a new space at the Komedia with two screens and a cafe-bar and I was thrilled to hear that they now have a kitchen serving snacks and more substantial meals. I’ve always thought that more cinemas should serve proper food: I often want to eat something before a film but don’t necessarily want an elaborate ‘dinner and a movie’ situation. Being able to meet friends for a drink, a light meal, and a film all in one place is a no-brainer and happily the Duke’s at Komedia has pitched it just right. There’s a varied menu but their central concept is the hotdog: not the questionable Coney Island variety but the modern, reinvented hipster dog with locally-sourced sausage and inventive punchy toppings. Its rare to see American food done well in the UK so clearly I had to investigate… Read the rest of this entry »

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It’s been a stressful old week Chez Lemur, with an unreasonable amount of work on my plate. I have only myself to blame: I took on too much, not really thinking through when all the deadlines would happen (hint: at the same damn time) and now I’m regretting my enthusiasm for new projects. It was all the more lovely, then, when an unexpected package plopped through my door yesterday. I order a lot of books, so I figured this would be just another brown cardboard book box from that politically-dubious bookstore but it wasn’t! The package was from a former student, Isabel Machado, a Brazilian filmmaker who now lives in Alabama. I opened it up to find two rather wonderful things.

First, there was a book called The Happy Table of Eugene Walter: Southern Spirits in Food and Drink. Lots of my American foodie friends will be nodding knowledgeably, as Eugene Walter was apparently very famous, but he is new to me. He lived, as Isabel did until recently, in Mobile, Alabama and he sounds like a rather splendid figure.

He wrote about Southern food and drinks, and was a huge influence on today’s resurgence of interest in traditional Southern foodways. He was also an essayist and something of a personality. In one of his many trips to Rome, he played the Mother Superior in Fellini’s Giulietta degli spiriti! Seriously, you know he must have been a blast. Further evidence is that this book has fully 50 pages of cocktail recipes, including a dedicated chapter on hangover cures.

The second part of the package was a fantastic short film by Isabel and Gideon Kennedy called Grand Fugue on the Art of Gumbo, a  documentary on that most iconic of Louisiana’s dishes that considers both Walter’s legacy for Southern food and the more recent shifts in perception that have seen the growth of high-end Southern cuisine. The film is playing at film festivals right now, so if you’re in the US, look out for it.

I’m looking forward to diving into The Happy Table just as soon as my deadlines are met. In the meantime, it cheered me up immensely to receive such a thoughtful gift out of the blue – and it’s so great to see former students doing well in the world. Now, is it too early to raise a glass to that…?

Image Rick Harris, CC Attribution Share-Alike 2.0

Remember I went to Boston and my internet didn’t work? The whole trip felt like a massive technology fail, from my iPhone camera with the scratched lens to the iPad that didn’t want to connect to the hotel wifi. Not to mention that on the way out I missed a plane for the first time in my life and found myself stranded overnight at Logan airport. There was something deeply weird about the whole experience: I used to live in Providence and so I spent quite a lot of time hanging out in Boston. I wouldn’t say I knew the city well, but I did know my way around and had some favourite places to eat. So to spend several days there and be repeatedly lost and disconnected was an odd feeling. I should know Boston but I guess I don’t any more. So there’s something appropriately vague about my eating impressions of the city. I was staying downtown, far from my old haunts in Cambridge or even at the cheaper end of Newbury Street, and so I generally went where people took me. Luckily, I have well-connected friends who hooked me up with some amazing food. Read the rest of this entry »

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

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 know, another dessert from me, what’s the world coming to? Baking-phobic that I am, I have had one signal success in the world of desserts and that’s my pandan cheesecake. I’ve always loved pandan, a flavour that does the work of a kind of Asian vanilla. It is sweet but with a background nuttiness that works in both sweet and savoury dishes. Pandan leaves are wrapped around chicken and grilled in Southeast Asia, but you most often come across pandan in the form of a concentrated essence, like vanilla, used to make bright green cakes or dessert noodles. I have a couple of problems with these uses though: first, the bottles of essence taste kind of chemically and second, I am really not a fan of those dry Asian cakes. I know, it’s probably a cultural bias but I do think cake is one area in which European and American cultures have Asia beaten. So, I came up with the idea of an East meets West dessert: New York style creamy cheesecake flavoured with pandan.

Over the weekend we had a visit from the Crocodiles, down from London and expecting to be impressed with some kind of Asian feast. It was nervous-making: they are very serious foodies with strong opinions on Chinese food in particular. I didn’t have the nerve to cook Chinese for them but I did put together a fun Vietnamese menu: thick rice noodles with fried pork skin and coconut milk, aromatic braised pork osso buco, sour soup with monkfish, and bitter melon salad. The pandan cheesecake seemed like an appropriate end to the meal, even though it’s not Vietnamese. I think I love it because it represents my cooking background – New York influenced by the Asian flavours of Chinatown.

Pandan Cheesecake

  • 3 digestive biscuits
  • 6 ginger biscuits
  • 85 g melted butter
  • 900 g cream cheese
  • 6 large eggs
  • 2 cups caster sugar
  • 400 g sour cream
  • 1/4 cup pandan juice (see below)

Your first order of business is to extract the pandan juice, and this you can use for all kinds of things. You need pandan leaves, fresh or frozen, to begin with, which are available from many Asian markets.

Chop 12 leaves into 2 inch chunks, put them in a food processor or blender and add about a 1/2 cup of water.

Now blend until they are as mushed up as possible – you might need to stop and stir them a few times as the leaves are a bit resistant.

Next, put the mix through a cheesecloth and sieve into a bowl. Squish and squeeze the leaves with a spatula or your fingers to get all the liquid out.

You’ll end up with a thin but deep jade coloured liquid that’s ready for cooking.

Heat the oven to 250 F / 130 C / gas mark 1/2. This cake is going to cook very very gently! Butter a springform pan. In a large bowl, mix the cream cheese and sugar with a hand mixer. In a separate bowl, beat six eggs, just to mix, then add these in to the cheese and sugar. This is the part where you have to just not think about how many calories you are planning to ingest. Add the pandan juice and the sour cream and mix well.

At this point, the cake mix will seem very liquidy. The pandan juice adds quite a bit of liquid but have faith. Pour into the springform pan and place on a baking tray on the bottom shelf in the oven. Cook for two hours – keep an eye on it as it may take a bit more or less. When the outside is firm but toward the centre is still pretty wibbly, turn off the oven and let it cool a bit in there. Then take it out and cover with a teatowel to cool before putting in the fridge to set for a few hours.

Serves 12.

Ok, I know Thanksgiving was last week but look at it this way – if you’re in Canada it was last month. Being up to date is all relative. It’s been a busy old time here at Lemur HQ and I haven’t been entirely well for all of it. I’m trying to catch up and get back into the swing of things but for now I am a tad behind schedule. However, late as it is, I could not resist posting about this awesome lemur Thanksgiving at the San Francisco zoo. My lovely friend DW posted this story on my Facebook wall and it cheered up what had been an endless long and stressful day no end. It’s like they planned it just for me. Lemurs! Eating holiday food!

There are loads more photos and even (squee!) video over at Laughing Squid, as well as a link to a Flickr set that will melt your shrivelled dry heart. And now is an opportune moment to remember that lemurs are endangered by loss of forest habitat in Madagascar. There are economic and political issues behind this deforestation, which are part of larger global issues of poverty, inequality and environmental destruction. These are not so cute, but I guess if I’m being thankful over this season, I’m thankful for political activists as well as dedicated conservationists. We can keep an eye on the big picture and still find time to create an adorable Thanksgiving dinner for the lemurs.

(Photos by George Nikitin (AP) and Justin Sullivan (Getty Images), via San Francisco Zoo.)

Books on food are one of my favourite things: lots of food lovers read cookbooks for pleasure as much as instruction, and food writing ranges from scholarly to literary, from travel writing to restaurant reviews. Lemur friends D&J gave me a fantastic New Yorker book of food writing last year and I spent happy hours immersed in decades of toothsome prose. And yet, so often food books are where well-meaning gift givers go wrong. I think I understand the psychology. The gifter thinks, ‘oh I know, Ms Lemur likes food and books. I shall buy her a food book!’ And then they buy something that is either the food book of the year and I have it already or something for beginners that I don’t have much use for. Don’t get my wrong, I totally appreciate any and all gifts and it is, ultimately the thought that counts. But as both a gift giver and receiver, I would prefer the money to be well-spent, the present actually cherished and not just what it symbolises. So my suggestions here are books published this year that I think foodies might find intriguing: not so obvious that the recipient will be getting three copies for Christmas and with enough real novelty that your picky eating reader might find something to surprise her jaded palate.

Maria Speck, Ancient Grains for Modern Meals (Ten Speed Press, 2011) £18.90

This handsome book would appeal to health-conscious cooks, but also to anyone interested in sustainable living or just widening their repertoire. It sets out to rescue whole grains from the clichés of stodgy hippie cooking, creating lighter dishes that will appeal to a modern tastes. But for foodies who don’t need to be persuaded of the deliciousness of barley, farro, and millet, there is a wealth of ideas for cooking with these store-cupboard staples. Recipes include salad with kamut, carrot and pomegranate and main dishes such as artichoke and polenta tart. It’s not vegetarian but it has very little meat, and offers suggestions for how to make veggie versions of meat dishes. The photography is gorgeous but it’s not just a coffee-table book. I can imagine loads of my friends cooking from this book.

Luke Nguyen, Indochine. Baguettes and báhn mì: finding France in Vietnam (Murdoch Books, 2011) £17.13

If you’re buying for Asian food lovers (hmm, who might those be?), Luke Nguyen’s new book could be a winner. I haven’t yet caught up with his TV show, in which I’m reliably informed he’s a bit of a twat, but this successful Australian chef undeniably knows his Viet food. I have his one of his previous books, Songs of Sapa, and I’ve found it full of great ideas. I don’t make his exact recipes all that often but I often find myself looking to his techniques and combinations for inspiration. This new book looks to be sumptiously illustrated and maybe a bit food-porny but he’s really passionate about regional Vietnamese cooking. This new book explores the intertwining of French and Vietnamese culinary histories: a politically delicate topic that has produced some of the transnational glories of the Vietnamese kitchen.

Anita Lo, Cooking Without Borders (Stewart, Tabori and Chang, 2011) £19.13

So you’re thinking of buying a cheffy book. Don’t go with the obvious options of Jamie or Nigella or Gordon – why not try the long-awaited book from the chef of Annisa in New York, Anita Lo. Annisa has a reputation for serving top quality fine dining at a slightly more affordable price, as well as for mixing chef Lo’s Chinese and Malaysian background with classical French techniques and new American simplicity. It’s a mix that gives fresh integrity to the oft-abused concept of fusion. As Lo explains, with her background all food is fusion to her and, in fact, culinary histories are stories of cultural mixing. This approach translates into an appealing mixture of recipes, generally on the fancy end, such as Salmon with Smoked Paprika and Savoy Cabbage, or, on the more Asian end, Softshell Crab with Sweetcorn Custard, Chinese Sausage and Garlic Chives. It’s also noteworthy that Lo is not just a woman in a male-dominated field but an out lesbian, so if you support more LGBT representation in the food world, check her book out!

Brad Thomas Parsons, Bitters: A Spirited History of a Classic Cure-All, with Cocktails, Recipes, and Formulas (Ten Speed Press, 2011) £13.52

Although I have a degree in Mixology (yes I do! really – I even have a diploma), I don’t make a lot of cocktails these days. However, I know some people who would love this odd little book, packed full of recipes for home-made bitters and things to do with them. Parsons is clearly an enthusiast and this book is the perfect guide either for the beginner who wants to move beyond Angostura or the seasoned cocktail maker on the lookout for more elaborate potions. He starts with recipes such as grapefruit bitters, pear bitters and, weirdly, coffee-pecan bitters. I really want to try that one. Next are a range of old-school cocktails from the famous (Dark and Stormy) to the obscure (Horse’s Neck, anyone?), and another section of new-look drinks. A final section addresses bitters in the kitchen, with recipes from ham glaze to bitters ice cream. It’s a book that probably appeals best to real cocktail enthusiasts, but if you know someone who takes their liquor seriously, it might hit the spot.

Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas, Life, on the Line: A Chef’s Story of Chasing Greatness, Facing Death, and Redefining the Way We Eat £15. 34

Food memoirs are a burgeoning genre these days and some of them are insanely cheesy. I’m not mentioning any names, but when you cross Sex and the City with Italian recipes, you can come out with some hilarious literary results. Grant Achatz’s memoir is a whole other ball game. As most foodie readers will know, Achatz was just emerging as one of the top chefs in the USA, his Chicago restaurant Alinea announced as the number one in the country by Gourmet magazine, when he was diagnosed with late-stage tongue cancer. He was told he’d need to have his tongue cut out, and that the treatment would destroy his sense of taste altogether. It’s a tough story and potentially an inspiring one. The book might be more for the hard-core foodie, since you probably need to care a bit about the restaurant business to enjoy it, but the story of his illness, determination, and luck gives it a real depth.

Gabrielle Hamilton, Blood, Bones and Butter: The inadvertent education of a reluctant chef (Chatto and Windus, 2011)  £6.62

Ok, maybe two memoirs by chefs are too many for this list, but I can’t resist pointing out Gabrielle Hamilton’s book because it’s just so different from Achatz’s. Hamilton is the chef and owner of Prune, a tiny place in the East Village that became pretty fashionable in the last decade. (Hilariously, although I have eaten there, my strongest memory of the place is a misbegotten attempt to blag my way in with the divine Ms P not long after it opened. We claimed to have a reservation that the hostess had clearly lost. She was not having any of it, sadly, and I didn’t get to eat there for another few months. Anyway.) What’s appealing about this book is that it’s not really about the restaurant business or cutting edge cuisine: it’s an earthy memoir of one woman’s messy and interesting life. By turns funny and emotionally intense, it charts Hamilton’s tomboy youth, illegal adventures, and culinary education. Anthony Bourdain calls it “simply the best memoir by a chef ever. EVER.” For that chef to be both self-trained and a woman only makes the story more engaging.

 

The BBQ Shack at the World’s End pub in Brighton has been getting a fair amount of buzz on the back of Observer writer and top foodie Jay Rayner’s piece about it in July. Rayner narrates chef John Hargate’s pit training in Texas and subsequent victories in the British BBQ Society’s annual competition, and his enthusiasm makes clear that, unlike the mediocre grilled meats more often misnamed as such, here is some proper barbeque. I’m not a true connoisseur of the smoked-meat arts but any time you hear that someone is an expert in a very specific form of food, you know it’s worth following up. The World’s End is also helpfully located across the road from the Duke of York’s cinema, so we combined our culinary trip to Texas with, somewhat mismatchedly, Arrietty, the new animation from Japan’s Studio Ghibli.

The first thing to say about the BBQ shack is that the ribs are glorious. Thick, intensely smoky yet with complex layers of flavour, they are some of the best ribs I’ve had. I grant you, I am not Texan and have surely missed out on many hole in the wall ribs experiences, but I have eaten some pretty authentic BBQ in the Midwest and the South, and these ribs stood their ground and then some. They are hickory smoked and doused in a sauce that is as sweet as it should be to match the smoke but in no way too sweet. The sauce is also not excessive. It is not about the sauce, it is about the meat, and the laquering of sauce reflects a careful understanding of that fact. We monstered through those ribs and would, given the opportunity, have eaten a whole other rack.

The other things we ate were also very good, but here a few caveats creep in. The pulled pork is described on the menu as North Carolina pulled pork, which seems odd since the chef is adamant that what he does is Texas BBQ. I expected pork advertised as North Carolina style to come with a vinegar sauce. Instead, it came with an apple-tomato sauce similar to the rib sauce, albeit lighter. As I say, I’m no expert and it is fully likely that this preparation is dead on Texas-style pulled pork. But I think I prefer the North Carolina style pork I’ve had in the States: the vinegar-sugar sauce keeps the meat moist and the piquancy balances the rich meat. Here, I felt that smokiness became overwhelmingly dominant and the meat was ever-so-slightly dry. This is really a matter of taste though, as the pork was still made with obvious care and devotion.

We went with rice and pinto beans for our sides and these were pretty good too. To be honest, Mr Lemur and I are not the best judges of Western-style beans and rice because we keep wanting them to be Latin American beans and rice and they’re just not. They look like Puerto Rican beans but they don’t taste the same, and that’s always a bit of a disappointment to me. But this is hardly the fault of the BBQ Shack, and for Western beans and rice, these were perfectly lovely. Maybe a touch undersalted but generally lovely.

From the first mouthful, it’s clear that John Hargate is a chef who knows his barbeque and who does seriously good things with meat. His ribs are one of the best things I’ve eaten all year. Now, if I could just persuade him to add some kind of collard greens to the menu I’d be in complete BBQ heaven…

BBQ Shack in World’s End pub, 60-61 London Road, Brighton BN1 4JE

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