Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Casa-Mae Lagos Portugal

Restored townhouse luxury boutique hotel

Located in the heart of the rustic seaside town of Lagos, southern Portugal, Casa Mae is a newly  developed boutique hotel. The traditional building has been restored and transformed into a minimalist, chic, yet still very much Portuguese haven nestled amongst the historic surrounds.The interiors have been sourced to perfection; using local fabrics and furnishings, not to mention the stunning yet discreet swimming pool outside the main building. There are three buildings which make up the premises: the main old house, the cabanas and the newly opened modern apartments. 

Saute'ed Prawns

As for the dining experience, the bar was set high for us as we’ve been coming to this part of Portugal for the best part of 10 years and having previously owned a house in the area, we’ve learnt what little gems lie in the town serving up great quality and incredibly inexpensive seafood. To our delight, the unfussy menu did not disappoint here at Casa-Mae. Breakfasts consisted of modern, creative dishes like avocado served with fresh lime, dried orange and chia seeds, perfectly paired with rustic bread and poached eggs upon request. The lunch and dinner menus did not leave us short of choice, every dish looked amazing. Personal favourites were the sautéed prawns of all different sizes (a nice visual touch) and the open air ‘Churrasqueria’ which served up a delicious plate of charcoal grilled Corvina (croaker fish) with a side of kale and roasted vegetables.

Julio the farmer
Poached Monkfish & Broccoli
What is really amazing about the food at Casa Mae is its local sourcing with most of the fruit and vegetables being grown at their nearby farm. The farmer, the nature-loving Julio Machado, grows Kale, Strawberries, Cabbage, Beetroot to name just a few and hand rears chickens for delicious eggs too. The chickens here were some of the best kept we’ve seen! Not only do they roam the grounds freely but they also have a luxury hen house, complete with antique-style chairs and a chandelier fit for any French interior design show! Julio’s hard work and genuine care for his farm comes out in the incredible flavours of everything he produces, a lovely man with a simple yet incredibly idyllic lifestyle…we’re jealous!

Overall, our stay at Casa-mae has been an absolutely incredible experience. Not only is it in our favourite part of Portugal, styled to feel just like the town we know and love, but it is a friendly, calming oasis to kick back and relax in the dry heat of the sunny Algarve. We’re already counting down the days until we can come back !

Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Native, Covent Garden, London

Scanning Time Out online for a new place to have lunch yesterday I came across Native in the 'Everyone's Talking About' section of their app.  A glowing report from Time Out reviewer, Tania Ballantine, encouraged me to stroll down to 3, Neal's Yard to find out for myself.

 Native is a first-restaurant venture for Imogen and Ivan who have gained lots of valuable experience doing street food and pop-ups but who also, in Imogen's words, are having to learn fast about running a restaurant.  If our experience yesterday is anything to go by then they are well placed on the road to success.

It was Imogen who warmly encouraged us into their small premises in the corner of Neal's Yard in Covent Garden.  There are a few tables at street level including bar seating which looks, not at a bar, but straight on to the cooking kitchen where you cannot fail to interact with the friendly staff.   There are more tables in the lower ground floor bringing the cover total to 32. 

Imogen suggested two seats at the kitchen which was great because we got to see most of the dishes being prepared and enjoyed discussing the finer points with Rob at the 'pass'. Their menu is small but perfectly formed with a range of country foods paired with somewhat unusual but interesting ingredients.  These included Wood Pigeon Kebab with Beet Hummus,Yoghurt, Pickled Cabbage and Harissa or Fallow Deer Steak with Cauliflower, Crispy Onions and Carrot.

I know this is a Seafood blog but I consider wild game to be on an equal par with fresh fish probably due to its natural origins, so forgive me if I indulge myself a bit.

We tried the Rabbit Dumplings with Smoked Bacon Dashi and Pickled Walnut.  This is great way to eat this underrated meat.  The meatballs were firm but tender with lovely flavour and made a great starter/small dish with the savoury Dashi and sweet Pickled Walnuts (which taste fruity like HP Sauce ).  Next we had the Slow Roast Cauliflower with Brown Butter and Wild Garlic which was amazing. The roasted cauli' had been seared in a pan and then laid on top of cauliflower puree.  I have never been vegetarian but this dish is a wholesome meat-alternative which is tasty and satisfying in its own right. 

Finally on to the fish which was Pan-fried Hake on Split Pea Dahl with a Cauliflower Leaf Pakora.  The fish was cooked to perfection by chef Peter who seemed genuinely pleased to get complimented on his skill.  As I always say the worst you can do to fresh fish is to overcook it and this beautifully fresh Hake fillet gleamed and glistened its whiteness from the plate contrasting with the yellow dahl.  The Cauliflower leaf (no waste here) Pakora was light and crispy and delicious. 

Accompanied by a crisp English white wine, Three Choirs Winchcombe Downs (Gloucester) 2013, together with great company, this was lunch with a difference which we look forward to experiencing again soon.  

Monday, 15 February 2016

Chotto Matte, Soho, London

Wandering down Frith Street in Soho last Saturday, we were looking to stop somewhere for lunch and stumbled upon Chotto Matte, a colourful, contemporary restaurant with a welcoming look about it.  Stepping into the foyer that welcome was exemplified as we were warmly greeted by the manager, Pasquale Baiano, who explained that all the tables were booked, but we were welcome to sit in the bar area to eat.  The service which you receive in a restaurant can make or break the experience and Pasquale's friendly attentive manner was everything one could hope for. Coupled with the flavoursome food combos and trendy ambience this made for the perfect lunch.  No wonder they were fully booked.  In fact, only the downstairs section was open for lunch and Pasquale explained to me that the upstairs would be open also in the evening and that they were still fully booked that night with 426 covers !

Chotto Matte specialises in Nikkei cuisine which is a fusion of Japanese and South American, in particular Peruvian, ingredients.  Now, I have sampled a range of food fusions over the years, some of which were a bit strange on flavour and also spurious in their origin.  Not so with Nikkei.  This fusion originates from times when Japanese immigrants to Peru wanted to create their traditional food but were forced to adapt to availability of local produce.  So expect the usual Peruvian ceviche ingredients of raw fresh fish with lots of lime juice and onion, Japanese sashimi with ginger and wasabi, along with more unusual vegetables like cassava, sweet potato and quinoa. Add to that barbecued Wagyu beef, sautéed fresh vegetables and Tempura prawns and you could believe you are in foodie heaven. 

The brainchild of restaurateur, Kurt Zdesar (formerly with Nobu), Chotto Matte has been open for just over 2 years now and is as strong as ever ( hence the booking rate ).  This is undoubtedly down to Zdesar's vision but key factors are the most important qualities in any restaurant, great food and great service. 

We tried the Beef Teriyaki version of La Nikkei Cascara which contained crunchy wok seasoned vegetables, brown rice and tasty succulent beef. We also ordered the Chotto Bento Box to get a good selection of the Chotto Matte classics.  This included Miso soup, Padron peppers den miso, Wild Prawn Tempura, Nikkei Sashimi Salad, Sea Bass Ceviche, Sushi with toppings, Spicy Tuna and Yellowtail Roll, Black Cod ahi miso, BBQ Chicken picante and steamed rice.

My favourites ? Actually it was the Beef Teriyaki Nikkei which was wholesome, full of flavour and great value at £9.95 (inc Miso Soup).  A healthy guilt-free lunch as they say !
Close seconds were the Black Cod, Sea Bass Ceviche and the BBQ Chicken.  But, if I am honest I loved it all.

Somewhat bizarrely the rest-room experience is becoming quite fashionable in London restaurants nowadays.  Think of the view from the urinals Aqua Shard, heated and musical toilet seats in some oriental restaurants. Chotto Matte is no exception.  Negotiate the darkness downstairs and you are struck (visually that is ) by the illuminated modern art wall in an otherwise darkish space with no obvious doors.  Then you notice the button to press which opens a dark glass sliding door to another dark space.  Sink units are flat dark discs, each with circular shaving-type mirrors above which automatically sense your presence and illuminate.  It's brilliant. 

What more can I say..... Great food, Great Service, Great Toilets ..... Go There !

Friday, 15 January 2016

Moxon's Fishmonger, Islington, London

Looking for fresh fish in London ? You probably can't do much better than visiting Moxon's in Islington High St. They have an amazing selection of fresh fish and shellfish, sourced by their own specialists at Billingsgate and around the coast. They even have their own fish smoker for Mackerel, Kippers etc.

Islington Manager 'Kev' has a wealth of knowledge with regard to the origins of their produce, how to prepare it and great tips on cooking. But then again he used to be a chef and he is studying marine biology in his spare time. I watched him expertly guide an Italian customer, who had a typical European rapport with seafood, through his purchase of Sea Witch and fresh Octopus.

The shop offers a wide range of produce which included Fines de Claires native oysters, Pacific Oysters from Carlingford, live crab and lobsters, shiny wild Seabass and meaty Turbot.

I bought some Loch Duart Salmon fillet and some beautifully fresh whole Squid which Kev double bagged with an ice pack for me to get it home to Surrey in tip top condition.

Independent fishmongers with Kev's skill, knowledge and enthusiasm are about as rare as Common Skate (ie nearly extinct) so get yourself down to Moxons and sample the freshness of the sea in the heart of London. 

Thursday, 19 November 2015

Brittens Guildford

I first visited Brittens in March 2014, about 6 months after it had opened.  I was impressed then and I am even more impressed now. I was lured back in a couple of weeks ago by the amazing lunch offer (2 courses for £11.95) and the food quality was so good that we decided to eat dinner there last week after a visit to the cinema. 

We enjoyed starters of 'Cured Salmon with dill, capers' and 'Chargrilled Mackerel with pickled beetroot and orange'. The salmon was beautifully cured with a firm texture and delicate flavour.  Its pale orange colour gave a clue that it was sourced from a high quality fish farm.  The fresh mackerel was amazing with crisp skin and not too oily (a sign of freshness). This had been expertly fileted as there were no bones, the pin bones having been removed using the 'V'-cut method. The acidity of the pickled beetroot and fresh orange cut nicely through the natural oil of the fish.

For main we had the Cornish Pollock with mussels, cider cream and spinach. Again cooked perfectly, the fish was succulent and tasty with juicy mussels adding interest. The addition of the cider cream was genius as it lifted the overall flavour of the dish. Pollock is commonly found in UK waters and is a considered a sustainable alternative to Cod or Haddock. Its natural flavour is a little more bland than its cod family relatives so sauces, such as the cider cream here, can be used to enhance it. The UK species (Pollachius pollachius) is a distant relative of the Alaskan (Walleye) Pollock (Theragra chalcogramma) which is one of the most important commercial fisheries in the world.

Daniel Britten is a highly accomplished chef and has honed his skills as a restaurateur since he appeared on Masterchef in 2008.  The Guildford restaurant is elegant with great food and service.  His dishes are interesting but not over elaborate and above all he uses fresh (often local) ingredients in combinations where the flavour of final dish is more than the sum of the individual parts.

Friday, 30 October 2015

The Wheelhouse, Falmouth, Cornwall

If you love unadulterated, fresh-off-the-rocks shellfish, get yourself straight down to the Wheelhouse and it will not disappoint. Make sure you ring up to book first as this is a 'must-visit' destination in Cornwall and they only open Wednesday to Saturday.  Despite having no website, no twitter and no email they can be booked up for months ahead; especially in the Summer.  It's fame all comes down to word-of-mouth recommendations, which have to be the most reliable sources of real-life opinions when you think about it.

So, what is all the fuss about?  First and foremost it's the quality of the shellfish which is mainly locally sourced (apart from the prawns), extremely fresh and beautifully prepared.  Secondly it is the welcome. This is a restaurant with a surreal, almost storybook-style, tea party atmosphere run by enthusiasts and enjoyed by seafood lovers.  None of your pastel greys and minimalist lines here; the eclectic decor features floral satin wallpaper, illuminated seashells, golden painted cherubs clutching candles and shelves adorned with hats from all walks of life.

We were a large party of 13 hungry tummies and opted for a set menu as recommended by the owner Tina Hopton.  She welcomed us to a table in the centre of the small 'living room' and recommended their modestly priced but very drinkable white wine to accompany our meal.  It took little encouragement for us to try on the various hats for a group photo as the homely, relaxed vibe encouraged our fun loving fan-fare to get stuck in. Having said that there are quieter corners of the room for those wanting an intimate setting to sit and savour the shellfish delights.

Sailors Mussels
Thai Prawns
Our set menu was a bit of a mystery, although exciting, as we had no idea what was to come.  First to arrive were copper bowls brimming with plump and juicy mussels under a blanket of steam, like delicious smelling mist over a moonlit millpond. Some were served Sailor style with white wine, thyme, cream and garlic, others were Thai style with chilli, lime and coconut.  This is very much a hands-on eating experience, as it should be with shellfish, and sharing is the order of the night.  No flimsy napkins here, messy hands is obligatory, but they do provide large bowls of hot water and lots of kitchen rolls to clean yourself up as you go.  

Bowls of skinny fries and tasty could cous cous salads arrived regularly, accompanied by water and of course the wine.

Garlic Prawns
Fresh Crab
Next course was sautéed prawns, again split into two flavour combinations; Garlic Shell-on Prawns and Spicy Peeled Prawns with ginger and chilli.  All the ingredients were fresh so the garlic and chilli really played their part in making these dishes burst with flavour. 

By this point we began to wonder what palate pleaser could be next and we were not disappointed when the waitress arrived, arms bearing copious amounts of meaty whole fresh crab. Prepared in fresh garlic butter and herbs, they were presented (overflowing) in the now familiar copper bowls. Plenty of claws to extract juicy meat from as well as the white and brown body meat which led to intense concentration as our ingenuity was tested to get the most out of these crustaceans. Always a challenge to get the entirety of the crabmeat out but no worries as they boxed up the rest for us to take home.

For the grand finale, we were blessed with pearly scallop shells encasing their sweet meat, vibrant coral roes attached. These had been lightly seared to perfection with an intense citrus butter which included lemon peel. The flavours were intense but mellow and buttery all at the same time and each scallop had been cooked just enough to seal its flavour yet maintain a soft, pillowy texture (something not easily obtained by any means). 

We sensed a slight Portuguese influence at The Wheelhouse with the copper (cataplana) bowls, the fresh high quality shellfish, and all round enthusiasm.  This was further reinforced by the presentation of complimentary Port tasters at the end of the meal.  It turns out that Tina has spent some time in Portugal and was impressed by the way they do this sort of food - who am I to argue?

Thursday, 22 October 2015

Rivington Bar and Grill

Set in Rivington Street, near Old Street Tube in trendy Shoreditch is The Rivington Bar and Grill which is owned by Caprice Holdings (The Caprice,  The Ivy).  One of two in London (the other is in Greenwich) the Rivington Shoreditch offers traditional British fare beautifully crafted from fresh, often locally sourced, produce.  The surroundings are 'New York meets Berlin' with a range of Art Deco architectural styles and lots of street art.
We arrived for dinner at the start of the London weekend (Thursday evening), were greeted warmly at the door and encouraged to relax and have a drink at the bar, as our table "will not be going anywhere". I dislike being rushed in a restaurant so this was a positive start which continued as we studied the vast array of gins on offer, finally choosing after advice, and a few tastings, provided by the barman.  We opted for the Colonel Fox and Rock Rose with Fever Tree tonic. Colonel Fox London Gin is made to an 1859 recipe and is flavoured with juniper, coriander, angelica, cassia, liquorice and bitter orange peel. Rock Rose is prepared and hand distilled in the Scottish Highlands and is flavoured with Juniper, Rose Root, Sea Buckthorn and Rowan berries.

 We were seated in the restaurant area which is decorated with whitewashed walls, stripped wood floors and bespoke Deco lamps. The decor is simple with clean white tablecloths and warm lighting to create a relaxing environment which is contrasted by the incredible buzz of conversation and enjoyment.  Maybe not a place for a quiet romantic tete-a-tete but tables are far enough apart for a feeling of your own space.  Art figures large at The Rivington, as it does in the whole area, and we were close to Tracy Emin's neon 'Life Without You - Never '.

Tempura battered squid
 The menu is not complicated and there are several seafood choices on offer including, fresh oysters, tempura squid, battered haddock, scallop ceviche, monkfish masala, smoked eel and cod with mussels.

I opted to start with the Tempura battered Cornish Squid with Chilli Jam.  Superb light batter, the pure white squid was tender and flavoursome and enhanced by the tangy jam. This is not fine dining but high quality food prepared from fresh produce and expertly presented. Most of all its is delicious.

Scallops, haggis, tatties,  neeps

For main it was Seared Cornish Scallops, Haggis, Bacon, Tatties and Neeps.  This arrived as five individual scallop shells each of which contained the entire combination and delicious it was too.  A nice change from the traditional scallop perched on top of black pudding.  
 Rounded off with a bottle of Picpoul de Pinet this was a very pleasant evening and I look forward to another visit.

Square Meal