Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Eating our way around West Penwith

I'm not even sure how to begin telling you about our three days in Cornwall, because they were so lovely. Years ago I picked up a Rosamunde Pilcher novel set in the area, and fell in love with it on the page. It sounded wild and green and somehow magical, and I am thrilled to report that all of those things are true.

Cornwall is a jut of land on the southwest corner of the island of Great Britain, bordered in the east by the Tamar River at Plymouth. It possesses a microclimate which allows subtropical plants like palms and succulents to survive outdoors year-round, and is generally very lush and green and a little bit exotic-feeling. It's a large enough area that we determined early in our planning that we wouldn't be able to go all over Cornwall in just three days, so we confined ourselves to the westernmost part of the area, the West Penwith peninsula.

We took the train from London to Penzance, a town that is far more picturesque than Google Earth would suggest. Our B&B hosts were a delightful couple with two small children and a terrific stone row house in the western bit of town, which was still only a 15-minute stroll from the centre. (Not many big towns in Cornwall.) We explored the town and its hilly streets and extensive waterfront promenade on our first afternoon, wandering through the gorgeous Morrab Gardens which reminded me of the Jardim Botanico in Rio, on a much smaller scale.

That evening we dined at the Turk's Head, Penzance's oldest pub whose kitchen is currently manned by a UK MasterChef winner. We arrived just before dinner service began and enjoyed a pint of cider while we waited. In the end, the fish and chips seemed like the right thing to do, and I don't regret a thing. A lovely piece of cod in beer batter, some better-than-average English chips, and a pile of minty but not mushy peas alongside "proper tartar sauce" (as the menu put it) slaked my hunger perfectly.
The next morning started out with a full English breakfast prepared to order by our host Andrew, a cheery Aussie transplanted to Cornwall and happily running a B&B. He and Lindsay, his ex-Londoner wife, provided all sorts of fab advice and suggestions for us, not to mention a kickass plate of food to get us going:

That's actually the "full veggie" with vegetarian sausage (Linda MacCartney's brand, if you don't mind, and they were terrific), poached eggs, fried tomato and mushrooms, and baked beans. A proper pot of tea and some toast sealed the deal, and off we went to attempt driving on the left side for the first time.

THAT was an adventure. The secondary roads in Cornwall are twisty as hell, about 1.5 cars wide, and frequently bordered by high hedges, leading to terrifying encounters around just about every turn. Somehow we made it out to the edge of Porthcurno, on the south side of the peninsula, to check out the spectacular Minack Theatre, carved from a cliff by one incredibly determined woman and her gardener:
Spectacular. One of the most haunting places I've ever been. If you ever get the chance, go and see a play there. We skipped that evening's performance of The Crucible (ugh) but I'm dying to go back and maybe catch a Shakespeare.

After that, on to the Porthcurno Telegraph Museum, which we both enjoyed. Porthcurno was once the central hub of telegraph communications in Europe, boasting 14 cables emerging from the nearby sea to a hub just up the beach. Now it's mostly for show, but the history is fascinating, especially the tunnel bunkers dug to protect the equipment and its communications potential during WWII.

Their cafe also does a very fine Cornish pasty, a sort of turnover filled with beef, potato, and turnip. It was invented as a hearty and portable lunch for tin miners in the area - their wives would bake them a pasty and send it down the shaft with them, where they could hold it by the crimped edge so as not to contaminate their food, and then toss the crust when finished. We ate our crusts.

Dinner that evening, which went unphotographed because it was too dark by then, was at the lovely Porthminster Beach Cafe in St. Ives, perched above the beach with a lovely view of the sea and the lighthouse nearby. We watched the sunset as we enjoyed monkfish curry, roasted tomato and eggplant soup, and some tasty but unfortunately exceedingly bony whole grilled mackerel. It was a tasty meal, but I found the service lacklustre and a bit standoffish. The view was worth the hair-raising drive over there from Penzance though.

Our final day in Cornwall, we climbed a small mountain: St. Michael's Mount, just down the road from Penzance. The castle is perched atop a rocky crag out in Mount's Bay, accessible by a stone causeway when the tide is out and by small boats when it's in. We walked the causeway and hiked up to tour the castle, which was delightful. Having worked up an appetite, we wandered back ashore into tiny Marazion village where we picked a restaurant on feel and ended up with another delicious pasty for Chris and a double-stuffed crab sandwich for me. "Newlyn crab," said the menu, and I looked out the window and around the coastline at Newlyn, not more than eight kilometres away, and thought that sounded like a lovely idea. It doesn't look like much, but it was scrumptious.

After a lot more walking, we ended up in Mousehole at the tail end of the afternoon. Pronounced "mowzel," it's a tiny, very picturesque fishing village with a scattering of art galleries and shops, ten minutes from Penzance in the other direction. We wandered the narrow sloping streets until we found Pam's Pantry, recommended on TripAdvisor for cream teas, and ducked inside. It's truly a hole in the wall kind of place, and at that moment the three "tea ladies" were sharing a bottle of champagne. We soon found out that one of them had just become a granny for the first time and this was the celebration.We congratulated her, admired photos of wee Freya, and ordered tea and scones with cream and jam.

If you've never had Cornish clotted cream, your arteries will thank you, but your heart will forever be missing a tiny piece. It was only by dint of the fact that we'd been walking and climbing things for two solid days that we managed to put away two homemade scones each, dolloped with cream and strawberry jam, and it was not a hardship. It's a good thing Mousehole is so far away.

Dinner on our final evening was again sans photos, mostly because it was a late meal and by the time we got our food, we fell upon it like ravenous wolves. It was all very good though - we went to the Cornish Barn in Penzance, which is part of the Artists' Residence boutique hotel, and which advertises itself as a bar and smokehouse, of all things. American-style BBQ in Cornwall!

As it turned out, they had an extensive small plates list and we ordered most of them. Standout dishes were the apricot-soy-green chile chicken wings, the hake with braised runner beans and peas, and the smoked courgette (zucchini) on toast with mint-arugula pesto, which was so damn delicious I've recreated it here at home twice already. (I did the chicken wings too. Fantastic.) They had local cider as well, which we enjoyed greatly.

The next morning we headed back to London on the train, with fantastic packed lunches courtesy of Andrew (and what an awesome service for a B&B to offer. A+, wish everyone would do it.) and with a friendly and quiet sheepdog sharing the train carriage (along with his owners of course).

Suffice it to say we fell in love with Cornwall more than a little bit, and we can't wait to return someday and wander further afield. And eat more scones.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Delicious London, the 2016 edit

Five years ago, Chris and I spent eight days in London to celebrate our tenth wedding anniversary. Earlier this month we headed back to merry old England to mark our fifteenth, spending five days in London and three in gorgeous Cornwall, in the extreme southwest of the country. I'll get to all the fantastic food we consumed down there in the next post, but today I want to talk about London.

It's an overwhelming place in many ways. There are masses of people everywhere. It's big, but compact, with neighbourhoods that bleed into one another and yet are totally distinct. Sometimes you cross a street and walk into a different world. I love it so much. However, finding a place to have dinner can be like drinking from a fire hose - there are so many restaurants and a lot of them are total pants (that's British slang for crap). We rented a flat very near the place we stayed last time, so it felt natural to revisit many of the restaurants we tried and loved on the last trip. In fact, we only had dinner in two totally new-to-us places, which suited us just fine. Everywhere we went back to had only improved in the intervening years (see above re: plenty of competition - the places that last are generally pretty good).

Our first day we were exhausted from not sleeping on the overnight flight, so once we checked into our apartment we showered, napped for a bit, and then stumbled out to our favourite pub from 2011, the Green Man, which happily was two blocks away. We nabbed a table in the empty upstairs, far from the Friday-night pint drinkers downstairs, and enjoyed fish and chips, a chicken and ham pot pie, and two pints of Aspall draught cider, one of my all-time favourites. Then we did a quick grocery run and faceplanted back into bed for a great night's sleep.

One of the many benefits of renting an apartment instead of getting a hotel is the ability to make breakfast before going out for the day and facing other humans. We scrambled some eggs and veggies, enjoyed a vacation treat of pain au chocolat, and headed out to see us some rainy London sights. After our first stop at the Globe Theatre (which is an amazing tour - don't miss it if you're at all into Shakespeare) we walked the few twisty blocks to Borough Market on the south bank of the Thames.

It was lunchtime. It was Saturday. It was NUTS. And we fell madly in love with it. It's covered, fortunately for us, because it drizzled all day. It's packed with stalls selling everything from meat to cheese to veg to flowers, honey, wine and cider, chocolates and other sweets, and even leather goods and clothing. It wasn't hard to choose what to have for lunch once we spied a few folk walking around eating containers of paella, topped with whole prawns and mussels in the shell. We fond the vendor and ordered two, then stood as out of the way as we could get and chowed down. We were asked by no fewer than five people where we'd obtained such gorgeousness, and we kindly pointed them in the right direction. Warm, savoury, filling and a tiny bit spicy, it was perfection on a gloomy misty afternoon. We followed it up with coffee and dessert at a nearby cafe just to sit down and get out of the damp for a bit. I'm already dying to go back to the market when it's not so madly crowded, so I can actually shop around a little.

We spent the rest of the afternoon wandering the City of London (which is how the business district is known) looking at the Gherkin and the Cheesegrater, then attending choral Evensong at St. Paul's. After a stop at home to dry off and tidy up, we presented ourselves at Barrica in Goodge Street and proceeded to have a slap-up tapas dinner complete with huge, fabulous gin and tonics. It's apparently the most popular cocktail in Spain, and it does go brilliantly with the food. They have about a dozen kinds of gin available, each served with a garnish chosen to match its botanicals. Chris tried Brockman's gin, which we both loved and later picked up a bottle to take home. (More on that later.) I stuck with good old Plymouth, since it goes with grapefruit, my favourite citrus.

After a day in the rain, the paella now a distant memory, we ordered with abandon: whole grilled prawns! Hanger steak with caramelized onions! Padron peppers! Chorizo! Patatas bravas! Eggplant with sherry and raisins! All of it was perfectly prepared, kindly delivered, and promptly devoured. The prawns were enormous and tasted like tiny lobsters, and Barrica's patatas (fried chunks of potato with spicy tomato sauce and aioli) are still the best I've ever tasted.

We wound down the evening with a warming glass of Pedro Ximenez sherry and some divine Spanish cheeses. Then we walked the six minutes back to our flat. It's so lovely when no one has to drive home.

Sunday was a wandering day, and a sunny one to boot. We slept in, then strolled down Regent Street, which was closed to traffic and fenced off down the middle for a good chunk. We figured out why when trucks carrying bicycles started going by - we'd happened upon the Tour of Britain's final leg, a 15-lap ride up and down Regent Street. We stopped and watched the leaders, then the peloton, whizz by us a few times, then wandered on, poking our heads into Liberty (such fabrics! such PRICES), Molton Brown (spendy bath stuff) and other gorgeous shops. At Picadilly we headed west to Fortnum and Mason, the fanciest food store you'll ever enter. F&M's hampers (literally wicker picnic hampers) are famous for being the best hostess gift to give or receive when invited to a fancy house party in England. Caviar, champagne, truffles (both fungus and chocolate) and biscuits all come packaged in glorious, tasteful tins and boxes, perfect for presents. We had a fantastic wander around, selected some tea for my sister and some biscuits for ourselves, drooled over the booze and chocolates, then headed even further west, to Harrods.

A quick lap through the main floor, with its stunning array of handbags and perfumes, a turn around the food halls for chocolates and chutneys and sighing over the pies and scotch eggs, was all we had time for. We caught the tube to Sloane Square and walked (a good long way) down the King's Road, through Chelsea, where I could happily live forever and ever. We turned off the main road for a couple of blocks, imagining ourselves inhabiting one of the bijou white-painted row houses with the doorknobs in the middle and the manicured hedges, with obligatory fancy car parked in the tiny laneway out front. Such stuff as dreams are made on.

On we walked, to Kurobuta, a trendy yet tasty izakaya (Japanese pub) further along the King's Road on a slightly less flashy but still lovely block. This was one of our new places; we'd not been exploring in Chelsea last time and had regretted it. One of the perks of going for an early dinner was the free bottle of wine we were offered via OpenTable; it turned out to be quite a decent rosé, which went very well with the yummy small plates we ordered. Sashimi of course, and a tempura roll topped with avocado, but also pork belly buns with an insanely spicy and sweet peanut-soy sauce; chicken yakitori, well-executed; sushi pizza with salmon and scallions; and a thin slice of fudge cake with peanuts, mango caramel (yes really; it was awesome) and creme fraiche ice cream. The place filled up as we munched, and turned into a very convivial and pleasant room with warm and friendly staff. We'd go back.

Monday was Tower of London day, complete with hilarious yeoman warder ("beefeater") led tour. The sun shone on us again; in fact it was quite warm. We lunched quite tolerable on coronation chicken sandwiches in the museum café and stopped in at an exhibit of Harry Potter film props before dinner at Yalla Yalla, just seconds from our flat. We'd found it while shopping on Oxford Street five years ago and were thrilled to see it still thriving this time. It's billed as Lebanese street food; we enjoyed grilled halloumi and baba ganoush before tucking into some perfect seafood: more prawns for me, with a tangy red harissa sauce, and grilled sea bass fillets for Chris with a green sauce that was herby and kicky. Fun cocktails like the Beirut sangria (red wine and orange Fanta, which Chris said was shockingly good). Thus fortified, off we went to the Adelphi Theatre for Kinky Boots, the Musical, which we adored. Must appreciate drag queens and fun shoes.

Chris and I split up on Tuesday - he went off to the Churchill War Rooms while I visited Kensington Palace, in 31-degree heat. Not what I was expecting from London! We rendezvoused in the late afternoon for tea in the Orangery of the palace, with tiny sandwiches and cakes and scones. It was good, but not as impressive as the tea we had at Harrods five years ago. The interior of the Orangery is quite plain and boring too, mostly white with a few plants. It was a perfectly fine way to spend an hour, but next time I think we'll spring for one of the fancy hotels like Brown's or Claridge's.

It wasn't a heavy tea, thankfully, as the day was so hot and humid. We had a much-needed siesta back at the flat and went out for a late dinner at a nearby branch of Wahaca, a Mexican chain opened by a Masterchef UK winner from a few years back. (The name is a phonetic spelling of Oaxaca, the Mexican state that inspired the cuisine.) I had a fantastic hibiscus agua fresca and a shockingly good grilled hangar steak with a nice smoky chipotle salsa, and Chris had a tasty chicken quesadilla. The place was hopping at 8:30 on a Tuesday night, so I cannot imagine it on a Friday or Saturday. Not bad for British Mexican food, really.

Now imagine an ellipsis for three days in Cornwall.

We returned on Saturday afternoon to spend one last night in London before flying home, and spent part of it wandering in Mayfair, just a stone's throw south of our nice hotel in Marylebone. We crossed Oxford Street and it got quiet, and the cars all got way, way nicer (think Lamborghinis and Bentleys; nothing lower-end than a Merc) and the buildings larger and cleaner and more historic. In Davies Street we found Hedonism Wines, truly a temple to the god Bacchus. Thousand-dollar scotches, rare California cabernets, you name it. But they were the nearest place selling that lovely Brockman's gin, so in we went and purchased a bottle.

The French fellow who sold it to us asked us very seriously, "When you tried eet - did you smell zee purple Skeetle?" Noting our quizzical faces, he scurried off to fetch an open bottle to demonstrate the candy-like scent of the straight gin. Damned if he wasn't right: purple Skittle. (It doesn't taste of it, just something in the botanicals smells of it.) Hilarious moments like that are what make a vacation memorable.

Finally, the last supper in London, at Rasa W1, the nearest-to-our-hotel branch of the Rasa group of South Indian restaurants. We ate at the now-defunct Rasa Samudra in Charlotte Street back in 2011 and loved it so much we had to find another place to eat the Keralan and Hyderabadi delicacies it offered. Our friend's family is from Kerala and their food is so different from the northern Indian standards we most often see at restaurants in Ottawa. We had to order the bagara baingan, a creamy eggplant and cashew dish from Hyderabad that we've dreamed of since the last time in London. We also chose a chicken biryani (rice dish, like a pilaf) and a mango and prawn curry that was delightfully sour and bright-tasting. We were so sad when it was all gone, because there's nowhere here that makes this kind of food. The people were kind and friendly and the restaurant is tiny and pretty, packed on a Saturday evening and doing a brisk takeaway business as well.

In the morning, one last full English at the hotel and we were off to Heathrow for our flight home to reality. Every time I go to London I'm reminded what a wonderful city it is, full of history and fun and utterly terrific food. We already can't wait to go back.

Monday, July 25, 2016

The Middle East returns to Centretown

About a year ago I went to the Celtic Cross Pub on Somerset Street West, to do a Paint Nite with a couple of friends. I recall it as a fairly decent but not outstanding place, in one of those old brick houses on the strip between Bank and O'Connor. Thirteen months later, that space is utterly transformed into a gorgeous restaurant whose decor manages to be both exciting and serene. Fairouz is a rebirth of sorts; a restaurant of that name once occupied this house, but closed about a decade ago. I never ate there, but by all accounts it was a traditional place where you could get a meal like your mom used to make, if your mom happened to be Lebanese.

The new Fairouz is nothing like that. And I loved it from the moment I walked in. The subtle tile patterns repeated in various decor elements such as the wallpaper, the mural on the wall that leads up the stairs, and the amazing screen-wall of ebony wood that separates the bar area from the hallway while allowing light and a peek at what's beyond. Everything is white, black, or palest pink, with hits of deep teal for emphasis: a feature wall, the candleholders. Even the patio out front has been transformed, with a stylish black railing and filigree-iron hanging lamps that I was dying to bring home and use on my back deck. This is a restaurant I could live in.

Especially when the food is this impressive. At the suggestion of our kind and friendly waiter, we (two couples) began with a trio of delicious dips and stunning house-baked pita, still pillowy and piping hot. The labneh was simple and yet delightful, a cooling mix of thick yogurt, olive oil, cucumber, and za'atar, a divine spice blend that incorporates herbs, sumac, and sesame seeds. Baba ganoush (roasted eggplant dip) was as perfect as any I've had in Montreal restos, gorgeously smoky and smooth with hits of fresh parsley to liven it up. I was also thrilled to see mouhammara appear on an Ottawa menu as it's a favourite of mine and something I make at home regularly. A blend of walnuts, bulgur, roasted red peppers, garlic, and pomegranate molasses, their version was chunkier than mine but dead-on perfect in flavour and spice. Each dip comes with two pitas; we ordered a couple of extras to scoop up every last bit of tasty goodness.

The dips hail from the half of the menu known as "grazing;" the other half is called "sharing plates" and consists of larger protein-based dishes, which arrive carved for easy distribution. Yes, this is yet another restaurant where sharing and nibbling is encouraged. You can certainly build yourself a traditional three-course meal here (just order one app, a sharing plate, and dessert), but why would you, when you can try even more items by sharing with your friends?

As a midpoint between apps and mains, we ordered a plate of perfectly-executed sesame-crusted falafel to share between us. An order is four of the crispy fried chickpea fritters, which when cut open are green with herbs (parsley and dill, I think) and sit atop a pool of dill tahini, garnished with thin slices of stunning watermelon radish tossed in spicy harissa dressing, as well as some truly adorable microgreens. All of those greens and herbs, by the way, are grown in-house in a cultivator. It doesn't get fresher than that.

From the list of sharing plates, we selected the berbere-spiced duck breast and the sumac-glazed chicken, as well as a bowl of rice to share. Fairouz offers two rice dishes independently of the sharing plates, which do not come with starches. The savoury option is mujadarra, with lentils, caramelized onions, and spices mixed in; the jawahar rice we chose is the sweeter option, with pistachios, pomegranate, cardamom, candied orange, and orange flowers.

It was something truly special unto itself, even alongside showstoppers like the expertly-cooked duck breast, ruby red at the centre and lightly spiced, topped with dried sweet-tart barberries. The King eryngii mushrooms, baby squashes and beets, and dots of saffron Bearnaise microfoam were adorable and tasty accompaniments.

They say never order chicken at a restaurant, and yet early reviews of this spot all mentioned the chicken as a standout, so we did order it and were not disappointed. I have rarely had such a nicely-cooked piece of poultry, with sweet-sour notes from the sumac glaze and the date "leather" that sat alongside the meat. Impressive.

As promised, proteins were nicely carved and sliced for serving and sharing, and each person got a good sized piece of chicken and two or three slices of duck breast.

I should quickly mention the interesting cocktail list, the good selection of wines by the glass, and the thoughtfully curated beer choices. I had a glass of excellent Leaning Post rosé from Niagara with my apps and another of a medium-bodied red Barbera from Italy with the mains. Chris had a Summer Damask cocktail with pink pepper, rosewater, sparkling wine and elderflower liqueur that he found refreshing and perfect for summer, followed by a pale ale from Left Field brewery in Toronto. Fairouz smartly also has a short mocktail menu and a daily iced tea, which I always appreciate, as sometimes I have a migraine and prefer not to drink alcohol when I go out.

And now I will tell you that for dessert, Fairouz has house-made ice cream bars.

That night there were two flavours on offer: dark chocolate, dipped in more dark chocolate, crusted with pistachios; and coconut milk, swirled with dates, dipped in dark chocolate and crusted with toasted coconut. We ordered two of each flavour and traded a few bites with our spouses. These were AMAZING. Better by far than any Magnum or Haagen-Daas you've ever tasted. The ice cream was rich and luxurious, but not so much so that it left a coating of fat on my tongue. The chocolate coating shattered and melted perfectly in the mouth. The toppings offered the ideal textural contrast. My friend said "I wish I could just walk by and pick up one of these to go, anytime I wanted." Then one of the waiters inquired how we were enjoying our dessert, and informed us that the resto does in fact already have plans to sell their ice creams to the public. I can't wait.

There are two other desserts on the menu, and I bet they're both amazing, but for my money, on a summer night, you simply cannot beat an ice cream bar.

We left Fairouz on a floaty cloud of happiness and satiation, thrilled to the teeth with a Middle Eastern fine dining experience right here in our own city. Shawarma and other street foods have their place, and there's some incredible spots for that in Ottawa, but this level of cooking was missing from our food scene, and I sincerely hope that Fairouz will show others (perhaps some of our new Syrian residents?) that it can be done, and that people are seeking it out. I know we'll be back for more.