Sam’s Kitchen

The city of Bath is home to the Roman Baths, beautiful Georgian terraces and ‘original’ Victoria tea rooms with the primary purpose of ripping off tourists. What it’s not renowned for is gastronomy. There are a fair few chain restaurants (Bills being the latest to land in town – good for breakfast though) and a couple of small independent gems that I will reluctantly share with you (Same Same But Different, good for coffee in the day and tapas in the evening) but not the roll-call of vibrant eateries you’d perhaps expect in a city as, well, smug, as Bath.

The most recent Bath restaurant I’ve been to was however, a great evening out. Amazing food, fab location and based on a fun idea. Sam’s Kitchen is known to well-placed locals as the fantastic deli on Walcot Street, good for daily joints of meat, fresh salads and an ever-changing menu. From May – August the small deli super-sized itself, as a pop-up restaurant in The Octagon – a one-time chapel with great acoustics and an expanse of floor space. The pop-up kept to the true idea of term – it did look as if they had literally found a few mismatched tables and chairs and arranged them in the space, punctuated with a piano and band area on one side, a makeshift bar and waiting area, and the open kitchen.

The staff were all lovely, typical of the Sam’s Kitchen deli crowd – a bit of banter, chatty, friendly, ready to top up my Prosecco at a moment’s notice (big tick). We were told that the menu sometimes changed twice a day, depending on the fresh ingredients in the kitchen, and you could believe it. Musical Dad enjoyed veal brisket, Fashionable Mother had plaice, and Little Sis and I had a simple pasta dish with in-season asparagus topped with gorgeous ricotta and pine nuts.

Live music was a nice touch in such a large space, especially one that could be a bit echo-y and reminiscent of a school canteen in between songs. The singer on our visiting night was also the pianist – lovely voice.

Our waitress told us they were hoping the pop-up could stay in the Octogon for a few more months, and I hope they get the permission – Bath food needs a bit of buzz, and Sam’s Kitchen delivered exactly the right tonic.

Sam’s Kitchen

Sam's Kitchen

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Dabbous Review – Tasting Menu Delight

Behind an imposing steel door behind Goodge Street subway station, just down from Pollocks Toy museum you’ll find Dabbous.

Dabbous is the latest ‘it’ restaurant, which in normal speak equates to a four-month wait list for a table, and is the brainchild of newly Michelin starred chef Ollie Dabbous.

On entering the famously hard-to-book restaurant you’d expect something pretentious, something opulent, something over the top. So it’s a pleasant surprise to see that it’s all dark steel, wooden floors, sparse and small, very small, there’s room for just 35 diners.

My girlfriend had somehow managed to get a booking at the restaurant on the exact day of my birthday, genius! So, after some faffing with the tube and taxis, we made our way over.

The staff were very pleasant and helpful, always smiling and always happy to explain anything on the menu, which wasn’t that difficult given the choices are an extremely reasonably priced tasting menu (£59) or a fixed menu that wasn’t that different.

We both opted for the tasting menu and a lovely bottle of New Zealand Riesling.

Our first taste of the food arrived in a small brown bag with the date printed on, alongside some very green olives and homemade butter. It was an extremely good start; the crust on the bread was amazing; crispy, tasty and the homemade butter, a slightly nutty taste, adding great things to the rest of the bread.

The first course was a pea puree, peas and an iced pea, well, ice. It was deliciously smooth and creamy with the peas popping and the iced pea melting in your mouth wonderfully. Even my girlfriend, who always says she doesn’t like peas, lapped it up.

Second course were some lovely soft quarters of red and white onion in a clear onion broth with basil oil (Mixed alliums in a chilled pine infusion as it is officially called). I’m not usually a big fan of onion but whatever had been done to these ones to make them so soft and clear was simply divine.

So far, so good. Dabbous was living up to any expectations we may have had but what was to come next simply blew our minds.

Now when you tell people the best thing you’ve ever eaten is an egg, completely cleaned out with the top cut off, filled with a smooth sort of scrambled egg with mushrooms and, seemingly, small chunks of smokey bacon, people think you’re mad. However this was simply the most amazing food I had ever tasted. I could have eaten an Ostrich egg filled with this creamy deliciousness!

The good food just kept on coming with a lovely piece of Iberico pork next on a smokey, chunky peanut sauce with baby radishes on the side (aka Barbecued Iberico pork, savoury almond praline, radishes & crushed green apple), another mark firmly hit.

Next we paused briefly to enjoy the cheese course, a small plate of four different types of cheeses from around the UK and Ireland with some crisp breads to spread them on. Not cooking as such but still delightful.

Waxing lyrical about something, as I have been doing, is all very well and good but you’re probably starting to think I’m making this up. Well I’m not, because if I was I wouldn’t have put the next course on the menu. A lovage sorbet.

Now, most people I have told about this aren’t familiar with lovage, and neither were we. Lovage is a member of the celery family from what I can gather, it certainly tastes like celery, something I’m not a fan of and don’t really know anyone who is. So an iced celery sorbet I’m afraid was the only thing that missed the mark and from the way the waiters talked, we weren’t the only ones to agree. I will say that I had a good few mouthfuls before I stopped. I was almost convinced, almost.

Finally we got to desert. A small pastry case filled with a lovely pear and cream filling that oozed when you broke into it. A tad sweet but still ended up being devoured in seconds.

Usually with a restaurant that is booked out months in advance, when the only menus are fixed, there’s a certain amount of worry, a certain amount of ‘can it be true’? I’m happy to say that Dabbous is without doubt the best place to I’ve ever eaten, from restaurants in Dubai and Milan to Locatelli’s in London, Dabbous deserves the plaudits it’s receiving, and then some.

SHRIMPY’S

So I’m back from my Wiltshire retreat and straight back into the swing of London things. Which firstly means finding somewhere to eat on a Friday night. Cue an hour or so trawling the Time Out pages, taking in the obligatory ‘you’ve GOT to go here’ recommendations and looking at the latest Grace Dent column in the ES magazine. And a common theme is Shrimpy’s, the not-so-new hotspot in the King’s Cross Filling Station behind St Pancras. So, with an office recommendation of ‘trying the crab burger’ off to Shrimpy’s we go.

After an afternoon of team-bonding at the Light Show at the Hayward Gallery (worth a look, incidentally) and a tad too much wine at Skylon afterwards (also good) I was starving, hoping to arrive at the restaurant and start mainlining shoestring fries. The menu certainly wasn’t disappointing, I honed in on the aforementioned soft shell crab burger, with a side of macaroni cheese. Although no description is given, the menu is at least loosely Latin American, with a strong ‘classic American’ bent, and the cocktail list looked good, even if I didn’t succumb (I stuck to Hibiscus Lemonade after the earlier excesses).

The space isn’t huge, and laid out with seats around a counter/bar, and more smaller tables dotted around the edges of the room. A sticking point was the service, although seated at the counter and in clear view of the chefs, bar staff and waitresses, we waited a while to have plates cleared, and had to all but trip up a passing and unwitting waiter to get a pudding menu. It was a good thing we got hold of one though, as my choice of peanut butter and banana ‘sandwich’ was a bowl of sticky, calorific delight.

It’s a shame the KXFS isn’t a wider mix of bars and restaurants. It’s in a bit of no-man’s-land and it would have been nice to have a neighbouring bar with the same vibe in which to carry on the evening. When the bill came, it wasn’t cheap, and to be honest I would have probably been just as happy in a Wahaca. Although the soft shell crab was to die for. And for some that’s definitely enough to get them there.

Shrimpy’s information

Shrimpy's

Recipe(asy)

I am not a natural cook. I have no ‘instincts’ in the kitchen, I can’t bake a cake and I can’t boil an egg. At university, when friends came to dinner they knew they would be getting a) fajitas or b) stir fry (basically fajitas without the wrap…)

Over the last few years I have tried to increase my capabilities when faced with a Le Creuset saucepan and cupboard full of herbs. One of the things I have learnt is that ‘one pot’ is often the magic phrase – any dishes declaring themselves ‘one pot dishes’ are perfect for having friends over, post-work ease and cooking enough to leave leftovers for another day.

One of these dishes, that sounds and tastes much more complex than the method, is Stuffed Aubergines with Lamb Mince, a recipe by the much-loved Yotam Ottolenghi. I came across it in a newspaper, judged it not to be too scary and (admittedly with the help of my other half) managed to cook it for New Year’s Eve and, more importantly, not poison anyone. Top marks.

4 medium aubergines (about 1.2kg), halved lengthways
6 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon ground cumin
One and a half tablespoons sweet paprika
One and a half tablespoons ground cinnamon
2 medium onions (340g in total), finely chopped
500g minced lamb
50g pine nuts
20g flat-leaf parsley, chopped
2 teaspoons tomato purée
3 teaspoons caster sugar
150ml water
One and a half tablespoons lemon juice
1 teaspoon tamarind paste
4 cinnamon sticks
Salt and black pepper

Preheat the oven to 220C/200C fan/gas mark 7. Place the aubergine halves, skin-side down, in a roasting tin large enough to accommodate them snugly. Brush the flesh with 4 tablespoons of the olive oil and season with 1 teaspoon of salt and plenty of black pepper. Roast for about 20 minutes, until golden brown. Remove from the oven and allow to cool slightly.

While the aubergines are cooking, you can start making the stuffing by heating the remaining olive oil in a large frying pan. Mix the cumin, paprika and ground cinnamon and add half of this spice mix to the pan, along with the onion. Cook on a medium-high heat for about 8 minutes, stirring often, before adding the lamb, pine nuts, parsley, tomato purée, 1 teaspoon of the sugar, 1 teaspoon of salt and some black pepper. Continue to cook and stir for another 8 minutes, until the meat is cooked. Place the remaining spice mix in a bowl and add the water, lemon juice, tamarind, remaining sugar, cinnamon sticks and half a teaspoon of salt; mix well.

Reduce the oven temperature to 195C/175C fan/gas mark 5 and a half. Pour the spice mix into the bottom of the aubergine roasting tin. Spoon the lamb mixture on top of each aubergine. Cover the tin tightly with foil, return to the oven and roast for 1 hour 30 minutes, by which point the aubergines should be completely soft and the sauce thick; twice through the cooking, remove the foil and baste the aubergines with the sauce, adding some water if the sauce dries out. Serve warm, not hot, or at room temperature.

Serves 4

Stuffed Aubergines

Birdhouse

Breakfast is an oft-underestimated treat. During the week I swallow down a bowl of cereal without much regard for the contents, and as I’ve never been partial to a fry-up, the more traditional ‘brunch’ doesn’t hold much sway for me either. But when you’re faced with the time, the money and the inclination for frivolity, eating breakfast out is one of life’s great treats.

I live approximately 100 steps away from one of the nicest places for breakfast in London. It’s a gem of a cafe, with my favourite shade of grey on the walls, old school style tables and lots of design knickknacks threaded between giant loaves of banana bread and salted caramel brownies. Birdhouse, on St John’s Hill, serves lovely coffee and seriously good cakes, but what they also do is a small but ridiculously tasty breakfast menu, not brunch, breakfast.

There may not be bacon, eggs and beans, but there is baked eggs – if you haven’t had them you need to get to Birdhouse fast. Cooked eggs swimming in fresh tomato sauce with spinach, chorizo and mushrooms and served with toast. Yum. Or perhaps you fancy smashed avocado and mint on toast? Or giant nutty granola and greek yoghurt? Or maybe just a slice of the aforementioned banana bread, toasted and smothered in butter.

The guys who run it are friendly and fun – we’re just getting to the point where they recognise us and it feels like ‘a local’ in a way you don’t always find in London. My flatmate and I are very protective of Birdhouse, taking deserving guests for their first visits and looking snootily at the ‘competition’ on the fashionable streets near by. Northcote Road can keep its Brew – we love Birdhouse.

Birdhouse

http://www.birdhou.se

Spuntino

There isn’t a friend who knows me who doesn’t know that I am completely smitten kitten with London’s chain of Polpo restaurants. It started with supper at Da Polpo in Covent Garden a couple of years ago, and now I’ve been to each outpost, raving about the food, the atmosphere and the completely amazing amazingness. And no sadly, I don’t get free food for saying all that.

The last restaurant to tick off my list was Spuntino, which is Italian for snack. But any preconceptions about ‘just having a snack’ went right of the window as soon as we sat down at the bar. Everyone sits at the bar in Spuntino, there are no tables. The wine comes in tiny carafes and the menu, unlike Polpo, has a decidedly retro American twist. We had macaroni cheese, buttermilk fried chicken, aubergine chips and fennel dip (yum) and an amazing Italian leaf and sausage pizzette. It was all fantastic tasting, and topped off with a ‘peanut butter and jelly sandwich’ which was actually slices of peanut butter icecream with a lovely raspberry coulis in between. Total yumminess.

You might have to wait to sit in Spuntino, but it’s worth the wait. Get a glass of Prosecco, sit back, and don’t forget to order shoestring fries. No telephone, no reservations.

Spuntino, 61 Rupert Street, Soho, London W1.

Bar Night Jar & Les Effrontes

London speakeasy style bars promise a lot, and frequently don’t deliver. Especially when the bar in question is adjacent to Shoreditch, off the Old Street roundabout unmarked and hidden between two questionable cafes.

But such cynicism is unfounded when you get downstairs at Bar Night Jar. Suddenly we were transported to Twenties prohibition America, with art deco interior, the sort of flattering lighting you know you’d get at Jay Gatsby’s house parties, amazing cocktails with a list of rums that makes you dizzy and a fantastic, other-time atmosphere that belies that you’re essentially under City Road.

Aside from the cocktails, which came in everything from china mugs to bronze cups with a helpful spout, the main attraction and what added to the ambience was the great live music. Last night we were treated to the sounds of Les Effrontes, a band with the all the jazz vibe of the chansonnier traditions of France, in tribute to the work of Jacques Brel and bringing to life the songs of Piaf, Gainsbourg and Trenet. They were fantastic, and had people dancing between the tables or swinging in their seats to a rendition of ‘I Wanna Be Like You’.

The bar is an Instagram fan’s dream, everything lends itself to a sepia filter, in fact, for an evening it was like being in an Instagram picture come to life, you felt you should be whispering bribes to bootleggers and giggling with flappers. We loved it.

Bar Night Jar, 129 City Road, London EC1