Hidden Gem in Central London

I recently had the pleasure of dining at The Vincent Rooms which is part of the Kingsway College culinary program. The “rooms” consist of two restaurants: one is the more casual Brasserie with a modern European menu; the other is the Escoffier Room, which offers a weekly themed 5 course tasting menu.

Famous alum have passed through the cookery training here and gone on to make a name for themselves including Jamie Oliver, Aisley Harriot and Sophie Wright, to name just a few.

The beautiful Brasserie looks over verdant Vincent Square and has lovely paneling, wooden floors and natural light. The tables are all dressed with flowers and cloth napkins and, although there is an upscale air to the place, all staff are welcoming and professional (if a tad shy and nervous). All the food and service is provided by students in the culinary classes who are overseen by professional chefs and maitre d’s.

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The first thing my pal Rene and I noticed was the outstanding basket of home baked breads that were delivered to the table. The sliced multigrain was our favorite and we even asked for more of it, which isn’t something we would usually do. Each bite was hearty and wholesome with a delicate crumb and wheatie flavor.  All varieties of the bread baked on the campus as well as homemade chocolates and other goodies are for sale in the lobby of the restaurant so you can pick some up for home on the way out.

We ordered glasses of Prosecco to wash down all those carbs and chose fresh fish dishes for our mains. Rene got the pan seared haddock (£13), which came with lentils and spinach. The skin was caramelised to a deep golden and the filet sat in a satisfying puddle of creamy lemon butter sauce.

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I ordered a gorgeous piece of grilled sea bass (£14) atop a pile of leafy greens, shaved carrots, dill and delicate spring onions. The fish had perfect grill marks and a smattering of caper sauce completed the plate.

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We ordered a stellar dessert of panna cotta (£5.50), which we chose as almost a test to see what the kitchen could do. Often this dessert has a rubbery texture from too much gelatine and not much depth, however the Vincent version did not disappoint. Creamy and rich, with a haunting vanilla finish, the dessert was satisfying and came with delicate homemade cookies.

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Overall, this is a top notch eating experience with quality of food and service that far outweighs the prices. Keep it in mind if you are in Westminster touring the sites or have theatre tickets in the area, you won’t be disappointed.

The Vincent Rooms has just launched a new website that makes it easier to book a table, look at menus and find our more about the program however I’m still secretly hoping that it won’t get too popular – best to keep secret gems a little secret.

You can read more of my reviews on Time Out London:

Enoteca Rosso, Bobajam, Nusa Kitchen, Soho Coffee, Sama Bankside, Ivy Cafe Blackheath

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Love Letter to Lisbon

Dear Lisbon,

I had no idea that you were such an elegant and sophisticated city. Rife with history, culture and natural beauty, you gave us plenty to explore during a recent weekend.

We were thrilled to discover your culinary gems, such as the Mercado Da Ribeira, an amazing amalgamation of a historical fruit, veggie, fish, meat and cheese market combined with a hip food court. The bounty from the area was eye popping, with gleaming fresh fish, roast suckling pig and even snails trying to escape their net bags.

The food court was created by Timeout Publications and offers everything from sushi to pizza, tartare from a Michelin-starred chef and some of the best Portuguese hams and cured meats to be found anywhere. It was here we were almost brought to tears by warm, luscious pasteis de nada, the country’s infamous custard tarts.

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The National Tile Museum, housed in a 16th century convent, was surprising in its offerings with unbelievably colorful tiles from the 14th century on up as well as a couple of jaw-dropping, gilt encrusted chapels filled with relics and paintings. One of the highlights is a mural of Lisbon done in tiles which shows the city in all its glory before the 1755 earthquake that wiped out large parts of it.

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We loved this detail of another mural that depicts a glamorous chicken being taken to a ball in a colorful carriage. Chickens hold a warm place in the hearts of Lisboetas because

in Lisbon, there is a piri piri  shop on virtually every corner. The inhabitants of this great city love to get their chicken fix and one of the best outposts is in the Campo de Ourique neighborhood.

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Step inside and smell the delicious aromas of birds that have been bathed in a sauce of hot chilies originally brought from Africa. Piri piri sauce is a marinade for chicken as well as a bottled sauce that is ubiquitous here and used to fire up everything from soup to eggs. Every cafe, diner and restaurant makes their own and the flavors and textures vary as much as the people who make up this hilly town.

We happened upon this fantastic chicken place on a walking food tour with Culinary Backstreets. In 6 hours we ate and drank our way around this out-of-the-tourist-fray district, trying traditional cherry liqueur called ginjinha, fish stew, bacalhau (another national dish made from salt cod) that is fried into tasty croquettes, pork vindaloo, cheeses and cured meats all washed down with fabulous (and underrated) red wines from the countryside.

Another reason I fell in love with you, dear Lisbon, is because you are much like my home city of San Francisco. Your hilly streets are also navigated by rickety cable cars,

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you have a scenic waterfront where one can consume red wine purchased from an adorable truck (don’t think SF has one of these yet)

and then used to make a toast to you and your version of the Golden Gate Bridge.

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I’ll be back to visit again, there is still way too much to see and taste to be away too long. Until then, dear Lisbon, keep singing your hip-swinging songs, painting your beautiful tiles and cooking up delicious traditions.

Magic from the Isle of Wight

The first time I strolled through our weekly farmers market in Balham, I was immediately drawn to the beautiful stall from Isle of Wight tomatoes.

All through the dreary London winter, the folks from Isle of Wight would show up each week with their bounty of fresh tomatoes in shades of yellow and red as well as a bevy of products from the farm, such as passata, ketchup, slow roasted tomatoes with spices and organic oak roasted tomatoes.

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When I marvelled at finding fresh tomatoes in London in January, they explained that the Isle of Wight is positioned to get more sun then the mainland of England. The farm is located in the Arreton Valley, an area that has produced tomatoes for quite some time in the rich, loamy soil there. The tomatoes are vine-ripened in large greenhouses and nourished with compost produced on-site from all the spent plants and other growing material. Upwards of 200 varieties are grown throughout the year by both organic and conventional methods and Isle of Wight uses biodynamic principles to curb pests, pollinate the plants and promote natural habitats around the farm.

Lately the stall has had padron peppers, those petite, piquant capsicums popular at Spanish tapas restaurants.

They are dead easy to prepare and lip-smacking good to eat. Simply heat a pan and add a generous splash of really good olive oil. When it’s shimmering, toss in the padrons. Stir them frequently in the hot oil until they blister and get browned then turn out on a platter and serve with salt – I used Hawaiian red salt.

Another inspiring product, the oak smoked tomatoes, featured this week in a bastardised Caprese salad for lunch. Smoked and fresh tomatoes were mixed with chunks of ripe avocado and creamy, fresh mozzarella then showered with fresh basil and splashes of Tuscan olive oil; each bite transported me to Florence in the early summer when tomatoes and basil have just returned from winter break. The smoked tomatoes contributed intense bursts of flavor with a haunting backbeat. Tonight I’m thinking of adding them to a cheesy pasta dish with asparagus but they’d also be great with other starchy ingredients like potatoes or rice or in egg dishes.

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Suffice it to say the products at Isle of Wight Tomato Farm really get my creative juices flowing. And I’ve been nourished in health and spirit by a little taste of summer even when a cold rain is falling outside.

Truffle time in Italy

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During a recent trip to the Le Marche region of Italy in the Apennine Mountains, I had the good fortune of crossing paths with some fresh truffles. The white ones (on the left sitting on the white napkin in the above photo) have a distinct yet subtle flavor and tender texture while the black ones are stronger and firmer. White truffles are lots more expensive than their black cousins at about $260 per ounce vs. $35 for the same volume of black ones.

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We visited the village of Acqualagna, the tartufo (truffle in Italian) capital of the area and went to a store that specialized in fresh truffles and products made from them.

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Black truffles were at the end of their season; they are mostly harvested in Le Marche in the late summer months. It was just the beginning of white truffle time, which will last until December. The store had truffle sauces, salts, oil, even chocolate infused with the aromatic fungi; it was quite a treat to experience such a place.

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Next we drove to Urbino, a classic Renaissance town with a thriving university. Amongst the ancient buildings and religious art were restaurants celebrating tartufo in all their glory.

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Although this plate of pasta doesn’t look like much, shaved white truffles were scattered in its buttery midst, creating one of the best dishes I’ve ever eaten.

Many restaurants in the states will be hosting truffle dinners this fall. Check in your area and do partake if the opportunity arises. Here is a Yelp link to places in San Francisco that may have white truffles in the coming weeks:

http://www.yelp.com/search?find_desc=white+truffles&find_loc=San+Francisco%2C+CA

PLENTY to CROW ABOUT

As a fan of Yotam Ottolenghi’s cookbooks “Plenty” and “Jerusalem”, I couldn’t wait to eat at one of his brick and mortar establishments on a recent trip to London.

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The one I went to in the Belgravia neighborhood was a deli of sorts with lots of salads, main dishes and desserts beautifully displayed on platters and baskets across a long counter.

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It was hard to choose but eventually we selected grilled eggplant smeared with parsley yogurt, roasted peppers tossed with fresh peas and basil, quinoa and basmati rice with broad beans and a shower of herbaceous dill and crispy cauliflower fritters with a creamy dipping sauce.

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Everything was sensually appealing from the bright colors of each dish served on tomato red plates to the flavor explosions in every mouthful. Leaves of parsley, dill, basil, mint and chives added to the liveliness of the presentation and taste of each salad.

We couldn’t pass up dessert after viewing the mini mountains of raspberry and black currant meringues and salted caramel brittle. Delicious!

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Check out the Ottolenghi cookbooks for inspiration; they have unusual ideas and interesting flavor combinations that will make you a fan too.