Thursday 30 July 2009

Saltoun Supper Club - The best place to eat in Brixton?


The Saltoun Supper Club is refined, urbane, slick and charming. From the moment we arrived we were set at ease and made to feel welcome. The fact that it is on my doorstep in Brixton is a bonus of Forsythian proportions.

Arno's house is a fabulous setting for dinner. If you had only 1 guess about what Arno does for a living you wouldn't opt for something boring like accountancy. The whole house was like being in a photo shoot. But rather than feeling forced or intense, it just made us feel very special to be part of Arno's world for the evening. In a nutshell, this is what makes "secret restaurants" so appealing. Restaurants rarely give you this feeling of intimacy and a direct connection with the person cooking your supper across the dining room.


Our starter of courgette carpaccio with barrel aged feta is something I wouldn't order in a month of snow days. But it was as if Arno had read our minds. At the end of a hot day, after a sweltering tube journey, we were dying for something light and refreshing. The edible equivalent of a gin and tonic. I could hear Cowie humming with glee as she reached out her fork to steal a slither of courgette whilst I was thirstily draining a glass of Douglas's prosecco.

Cougette carpaccio

A duck terrine then arrived, very photogenically, on the lid of an old port case. The terrine was wonderfully deep, tasting intensely of duck with a smooth richness that wouldn't be out of place at an ambassador's cocktail party. My tounge almost got splinters as I tried to lick the wooden platter.

Duck and pistacio terrine

A simple fillet of sea bass served with new potatoes and peas was a lovely piece of fish that was allowed to speak for itself. It wasn't the evening for fancy sauces, especially when you conider Arno was cooking fish for 14 people in a small kitchen.

Sea bass

Then, Arno hit us with one of the best surprises I've encountered all year. He produced an oyster the size of Belgium from his fridge and asked if we'd like him to cook it for us! Wow.

Massive oyster

Oyster opening

Arno battled with the blighter for several minutes before poaching the enormous oyster and serving it to his awestruck guests with a beurre blanc let down with the poaching liquor. It stands out as the best thing I have eaten all year by quite some distance. It was so good I wouldn't be surprised if he had laced it with opium. Unfortunately my photos don't do it justice whatsoever...


Oyster sauce

Sharing a gigantic communal oyster is a surefire way to get the party started. Whatever imaginary barriers existed between individual tables or with Arno vanished. The decibels went up and we all mingled between tables as if we were at a friend's dinner party.

Our eton mess with mango and salted caremel was simple and delicious, oozing style and caremel in equal measure.

Meringue with salted caramel and mango close

Meringue with salted caramel and mango

The meal then officially finished with coffee and petit fours that put many restaurants to shame.

Petit fours

After a couple of tables had disappeared and Arno relaxed after a lot of hard work, we found ourselves being treated to a wine and cheese lock in with a bottle of wine that Douglas described as a "couth, cigar, hymnbook and distantly blackcurrant scented Bordeaux [which] turned out to be a vital delight." What a treat.

We left on a high; buzzing just like you should do from restaurants, but o so rarely do.

Pay up

P.S. Here's what Douglas thought.

Monday 27 July 2009

Kastoori - Vegetarian Magic in Tooting

Our trip to Kerala and Goa opened our eyes to the world of vegetarian food. The range of interesting and complex dishes we had that contained no meat or fish was astonishing. By the end of our trip we had stopped thinking of food in terms of a piece of protein plus some veggies and instead just enjoyed what was in front of us. In Kerala it is meat eaters who are the odd ones out, to the extent that places that serve meat are referred to as "non-vegetarian".

So when we arrived at Kastoori, a vegetarian Indian restaurant in Tooting, I got rather excited and tried to order almost everything on the menu. Luckily the waiter stepped in and very purposefully told me to not be greedy and calm down! Weirdly, I quite enjoyed being put back in my place by a stranger with a notepad and a mustache. Let's hope it's not a strange fetish that's beginning to rise to the surface! Luckily the waiter did allow us to order two of the best named dishes I've ever come across: Dahi Puri and the "not-un-Star-Warsy" Dahi Vada which I imagined arriving with a light saber and black mask.

The Dahi Puri are one of Kastoori's signature dishes. The menu describes them as "taste-bombs" which does a pretty good job of bringing them to life. Crispy shells are filled with "diced potatoes, chick peas, puffed rice, onions, pani sauce, sweet and sour sauce and topped with yoghurt sauce". I can't remember the flavours much, but the textural experience was sublime.

Wow - Dahi Puri

Dahi Vada was far more fun to ask for than to eat, which was to be expected. I found the yoghurty sauce a bit overwhelming and made a beeline instead for the bhajis...

Yoghurty mud bean balls - Dahi Vada

Onion Bhajia

... which were sensational. Crisp, savoury and no-where near as greasy as they tend to be. I even convinced Cowie to have one!

Our Kastoori Bhatura was a wonderfully inflated chipatti that resembled a bready woopy-cushion. Dipped in our array of sauces and spicy condiments, it was fantastic.

Not so flat bread - Kastoori Bhatura

Whilst we were pottering around India I kept missing out on having a dosa. They are large, think, rolled up pancakes filled with savoury sauces. The masala dosa at Kastoori was visually arresting, but unfortunately the spiced potato filling and accompanying sambar wasn't quite as exciting.

Masala Dosa

(Putting a slightly dull filling to one side, it has made me think that a dosa could make a fantastic left field appearance at next year's pancake competition as a follow up to our Crispy Aromatic Pork Belly Pancakes this year.)

The star of the main course was a chilli banana dish that is spiced with red chillies, lubricated with tomatoes and inspired by Africa. It was a one of the most unusual things I've eaten and had us wondering what John Torode and Greg Wallace would have said on Masterchef if you'd served it to them. I can just hear Pudding Face "Tut-tutting" and saying, "No, no. This is all wrong". But it worked. What a dish. It's worth the trip to Tooting alone.

Chilli banana

A bean-ball curry and vegetarian curry were both good, but suffered from being in the shadow of the chilli banana...

Bean ball curry - Kastoori Kofta

Vegetable curry

Desserts are always terrible in Indian restaurants, but we couldn't resist ordering a couple to test the water. Jeffrey Steingarten singles them out as being one of gastronomy's great mysteries - "they have the texture of face cream". And he's not far wrong.

Rice pudding

Rice pudding with pistachio was like someone had tipped a can of Ambrosia into the microwave that I could see through the kitchen door and then crumbled some pistachios on top...

Mango ice cream

And the comically conical mango ice cream was clearly missing from the set of Babestation.

But the desserts were never going to be any good, so let's just have a laugh and reflect on the fact that Kastoori is a brilliant, inexpensive restaurant, that happens to be both Indian and vegetarian. And luckily for us, just down the road. Just don't arrive with a yearning for chicken tikka masala.

Kastoori on Urbanspoon

Update from Cassius

Cowie's pizza oven

Cassius is going from strength to strength. The summer rain and sun has widened his cracks, but he doesn't care. We've tried to add coats of protective clay but he isn't interested. He just shrugs them off and demands to be used. If we cook in the Aga he starts sulking like a moody teenager. Our efforts in Cassius to date have been great. But we are constantly trying to improve our technique.

So in preparation for a party in Somerset, I bought a cast iron rectangular skillet to act as a DIY pizza stone. So far we've been using upturned baking trays, but in light of the fact that we have ruined 3 of Cowie's parents' pans, I thought it would be worth the small investment.

The other area we've been keen to improve on is the dough. We've been following a Jamie Oliver recipe that demands semolina flour, but have always cheated and used plain flour. The bases have been tasty but lacking the authentic bubbles that you get at places like Franco Manca. So we visited At the Chapel in Bruton who have a pizza oven and to our delight they gave us not only a bag of their semolina but also a small pot of their sourdough starter! To say that I was excited would be the understatement of the century. (More on "Simon the Sourdough Starter" another time)

The combination of using dough made with semolina and the cast iron "pizza stone" resulted in our best pizzas yet. The skillet got so hot in the embers that it had the pizza base dancing and bursting. The pizzas cooked in around 3 minutes flat and tasted of Napoli!

 Pizza being baked

A simple parma ham and mushroom pizza kicked Christened the new skillet...

Glowing pizza

mushroom and parma ham

The "La Reine", excusing the lack of olives, put Pizza Express's version to shame.

Tomato and mozzerella

A plain, tomato and mozzarella pizza was simply brilliant. Some torn basil and a twist of black pepper had us shouting with greedy delight.

Fully loaded pizza being cut

And a fully loaded beast with mushrooms, sun dried tomatoes and chilli that we've named "Arnie".

Eggy pizza

Our Eggy Pizza was a triumph as well. The yolk oozed across the plate and acted as a fantastic dipping sauce.

Cassius is loving life. He's just getting better and better. The combination of semolina and skillet has made a huge difference to the bases. They've become much lighter and are developing the bubbles we've been hankering after. For our next trick we're going to make our bases using "Simon the Sourdough Starter" that we're lovingly nurturing... If you've got any suggestions for awesome toppings let us know.

Sumac Salmon and Apricot Tart

Cowie and I have caught Ottolegnhi fever. It's a rare condition where the victim exhibits symptons of boredom with normal food and a craving for exotic sounding spices like sumac and Za'atar. Other tell tale signs are a new found love of vegetables and an addiction to scorched broccoli.

So when Cowie and I planned our latest dinner party it was only natural that it took on an Ottoleghi feel. Feeling confident having followed some of his recipes carefully, we decided to branch out and use the book as inspiration rather than treating it like a copy of the ten commandments. Our menu was:

Starter: Communal watercress salad with griddled nectarine, goats cheese and mandarin oil dressing

Main: Whole sumac BBQ salmon with fregola and sumac yoghurt

Dessert: Apricot semolina tart

For the salad we simply griddled some nectaries assembled a large salad of watercress, soft goats cheese and slices of prosciutto. We then sprinkled it with a dressing made from Nudo mandarin olive oil and white balsamic and a few turns of salt and pepper. It looked stunning and was wolfed down with great enthusiasm.

Peach salad

Kicking off dinner parties with shared salads like this where everyone can help themselves whilst having a drink is a great way of taking some of the strain out of being a host. It saves washing up and can be prepared really easily. It allowed us to concentrate on doing justice to the salmon...

As a result of our excellent turbot, we decided to source our wild side of salmon to feed 12 from Moxons. It costs more. But when it is the star of the show, it's worth it.

Sumac marinade

I whipped up a marinade of olive oil, sumac, salt, pepper and sumac and left it to rest for half an hour whilst we got the BBQ up to heat. The logistics of BBQing a whole side of salmon are simple. But daunting. One wrong move and the fish falls apart and everyone goes home hungry. Having collected lots of advice from various books and websites I dived straight in with Cowie almost shouting at me to play it safe and cook it in foil... Pah...

Here's what to do:
1. Clean the grill and then oil it so it's nice and slippy
2. If you aren't marinating the fish, then make sure you oil the skin
3. Disperse the embers so that you aren't cooking directly above them - it's much better cooking on indirect heat as it avoids burning
4. Place the fish skin side down
5. Attend to your fish with unwavering concentration
6. When the time is right, use two spatulas/fish slices and use quick jabbing movements and turn he fish quickly
7. Only turn your fish once
8. The fish will only need a short amount of cooking on the flesh side
9. Remove from the heat and serve

BBQ salmon

Our salmon took around 15-20 minutes of gentle cooking before it was ready. The smell of heat on fish skin is one of my favourites.

Sumac salmon

To our delight the salmon was perfect. The skin was so crispy and fragrant that fish skin haters lapped it up with glee; the flesh teased apart and made serving it a doddle; and It was still thrillingly medium rare. Phew!

The yoghurt dressing with sumac, lemon zest, chilli and clutch of herbs from the garden offered a fresh creamy counterpoint to the vibrant fish. The exotic, lemony flavour of sumac was very subtle, but utterly delicious. It's got us hooked!

Sumac sour cream sauce

A bowl of fregola mixed with cous cous hazlenuts, tomatoes and herbs wasn't half bad either! Another doff of cap to Ottolenghi.

Fregola goodies

After the success of a semolina rhubarb tart earlier in the year we decided to make the most of a glut of apricots by making them into a tart. It's very easy and tastes great. The night before simply make a semolina cream by heating 1 1/2 cups of milk spiked with vanilla and when it gets hot add 45 grams of fine semolina and 55 grams of caster sugar. Stir this as it heat and bring to the boil. Cook for a little longer and when it is smooth and thick remove from the heat. Allow it cool a little and then beat in 3 egg yolks. Set this aside in plastic bowl and cover with cling-film that hugs the cream to avoid a skin forming. Then on the night of the dinner party blind bake some dessert pastry, allow to cool and then spoon in the semolina cream. Now you can get arty. Arrange your slices of fresh apricot in geometric patterns and paint with apricot jam. Then bake until the apricots have become soft and the top has turned golden.

Apricot Tart

We served it warm with some vanilla ice cream. But it is probably better (and easier to serve) cold. The tart apricots had turned sweet with their juices combined with the smooth semolina cream. The only disappointment was that there wasn't enough for seconds! You could do the same thing with gooseberries or raspberries...

It was one of our most fun dinner parties to date. We managed to balance cooking interesting food whilst also taking as much stress and time consuming preparation out as possible. It's a great formula, and one we are going to repeat.

Tuesday 14 July 2009

Turbot Charged with Fennel, Tarragon and Vermouth

Moxon's in Clapham South must have known we were coming... why else after a hard day's cycling to and from Greenwich in the rain, would they sell us a whole turbot for a tenner! Admittedly it was only small. But special nonetheless. If Santa punishes boys who have been naughty with lumps of coal, the fishmonger Gods reward energetic cyclists with stunning fish.

Giddy with excitement we rushed back with our precious cargo and brainstormed our approach. We plundered our ever growing library of cooking books for ideas and then set off to Balham to get the rest of our goodies. As ever, we used the books more for ideas to adapt rather than recipes to follow slavishly as you'll se below.

Turbot face

Turbot top down 2

Having named our turbot, Timmy, we decided he'd taste good with an aniseedy assault. So we roasted a bulb of fennel in salt and olive oil with a roughly chopped bulb of onion and a couple of whole garlic cloves. These softened and sweetened for 15 minutes before we added our turbot which had been seasoned and covered in herbs from Cowie's garden. Plenty of chopped thyme, marjoram, fennel frills and tarragon found their way into the crevices our fishmonger had cut.

Turbot top down

Herby turbot

We poured over a trickle of vermouth and a large glass of dry white wine and a glug of olive oil before covering with foil and roasting in the oven for 25 minutes. Wafts of aniseed and sophistication enveloped the kitchen. A neighbour even leaned over the garden fence and asked what we were cooking! What emerged from the oven was so good I've had to censor the photograph.

The flesh parted company with the skin and the bones with such ease and stayed firm that I almost rang up Rick Stein and Richard Corrigan to do a little bit of boasting!

The subtle multi faceted aniseedy notes were so much fun. They mellowed and combined to give a herby backdrop that acted as a podium for the turbot to strut its stuff on. The onion and fennel had become soft and sweet having absorbed the turbot juice and plenty of white wine.

The turbot was treated to an introduction by and accompaniment of Ottolenghi dishes which you can see below...

Peaches and parma ham

Peach, feta and parma ham salad for starter with Nudo mandarin oil dressing

Fregola with goodies

Fregola with goodies (if anyone has any suggestions for what to cook with this we'd love to know!)

Beans with hazlenuts

Beans and mange tout with roasted hazelnuts

Aubergine Ottolenghi

Aubergine with parsley, garlic and olive oil

It was a fabulous meal that was perhaps a touch more indulgent than we had planned. It certainly made me understand why someone would want to go to war over a turbot.

Monday 13 July 2009

Balham - Comings and Goings

New restaurants and foodie ventures are popping up around Balham like zits after a bath in engine oil. It's only adding to the much derided claims that Balham is becoming the new Notting Hill. What more would you expect from an area that is the birthplace of Ainsley Harriot.

Following the recent opening of Light of Gurkha, Balham has now been blessed with a new Italian restaurant called Locale which "offers comfortable dining in an intimate atmosphere with a warm feel." It looks pretty decent and can be found a short walk to the south of Balham station.


Nearby, the Blue Pumpkin has closed. Boo.

Blue Pumpkin

But, wipe away that tear, because "The French Cafe" is taking its place...

French Cafe

Almost without us realising it, Meze has appeared opposite Paddyfield with initial reports suggesting it's "pretty good".

Meze Kitchen

But most excitingly, Chadwick's has moved locations so that it can be closer to Cowie's house. We've become big fans of their meat, in particular their lamb and chicken. Their new site, opposite Waitrose, is far more spacious allowing them to exhibit their amazing carcasses in a special cabinet at the back which I had to be forcibly dragged away from!


Well done Balham. We're looking forward to seeing what happens next. In an ideal world an awesome coffee shop/bakers/deli would open next to Holy Cow... fingers crossed. Just so long as it's not an Ainsley Harriot noodle bar.


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