Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Chez Liline: pelagic perfection, London restaurant review

Good seafood restaurants are hard to to come by in the cities: the supply lines need to be quick to maintain freshness, the paramount attribute of this delicate product. But imagine if a fishmonger was also a seafood restaurant proprietor. Someone who deals in fish would also cook it and serve it. And if that someone was from a tropical island amidst the Indian Ocean, with a passion for flavours and fine cuisine.

Such a place does exist in London in, of all places, Finsbury Park. Chez Liline is a Mauritian restaurant, serving food from that peculiar place where such diverse cultures as French, African, Indian and Chinese blend into something quite delectable. Imagine black beans, chillis and fresh basil adorning one dish: yummm, indeed!

Every time we go there with my friends Dusko and Mack, we get the Chef's Menu, the FRench version of the Japanese omakase, where you let the chef decide what is good for you and what is best today.

Everything comes freshly cooked from the kitchen, sizzling ina cloud of aromatic vapours. The variation is not large, it's samish combinations and ingredients every time, what matters is the perfection to which everything is cooked!

The starters are different kind of seafood - mussels, scallops, baby squid and shrimp stir-fried with sauce: spicy blackbean, butter.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Kale, a.k.a. boerenkool or grunkohlessen: back to roots!

Kale is one of the classic European staple vegetables that Northern European peasants used to sustain on before potatoes and tomatoes and other exotic lovelies became normal.

It is experiencing a sort of nostalgia-driven fad revival in Holland and Germany, when city dwellers have become removed enough from the realities of rustic life to long for the good ole days of hearty healthy food when "things were simple and straightforward".

Kale is indeed a very wholesome one, apparently full of calcium and fibre. The basic recipe is to steam it, chop it and fold into mash potatoes. This is what is sold in Holland as the cheapest one in Albert Heijn's range of infamously insipid steamed lunch packs.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Fini ratluk: Serbian hand-made Turkish delight

A vestige of the Turkish rule in Serbia: hand-made Turkish delight, pistachio flavoured. A nice souvenir straight from Belgrade for a curious foodie like your truly.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

And luxury for all: Marks & Spencer venison sausages

I have had more venison sausages since I moved to London in 2008 than in my entire life. First I saw them at the enlightened Slow Food Festival on the Southbank: aimed at the kind of crowd that regularly hangs out at the Royal Festival Hall, with prices to match. Now the commoditification of luxury products has brought game meat to the shelves of Marks & Spencer. Mind you, marked down! Four quid fifty for two boxes, 12 venison sausages. Is the right spelling surely not Marx and Spencer? Granted, working classes don't shop at Marks and Sparks but wealth-trickling needs to starts somewhere. Now it is down to persuading the masses to stop buying the similarly priced frozen toilet-paper-and-emulsifiers Cumberland sausages and switch to game, Argentine red and silver cutlery. Next logical step perhaps would be licensing the denizens of Woolwich for fox-hunt.

Serving suggestion: grilled, with garden salad and finocchio alla griglia. If you have the patience, sauté chopped shallots in the sausage juices, add a few juniper berries and red wine, simmer until alcohol evaporates.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Bitter gourd, goya, cerasee, karela: it's all actually one thing

Truly omnivorous that I am, there are very few restrictions when it comes to food, as long as it is nicely cooked. All edible carbon matter on this planet is a gift from God not to be taken for granted. My very few no-no's cover probably just steaks from cute animals like koalas and guinea pigs . Otherwise nothing else is barred. Bitter melon, however, is something I don't suffer gladly. I force myself to eat it because it is supposed to be so good for health (like most other health foods). The ridiculously long average life span on Okinawa, which beats even that in mainland Japan, is routinely attributed to the high consumption levels of goya, as it is known in Japanese.

The most common way to cook it is to remove the scathingly bitter peel and seeds and stuff the remaining flesh with mince, tofu and rice. This brings down the bitterness to a more tolerable level but it still tastes like somebody has accidentally spilt a pack of quinine into the pot.

As if to try to make life in the Caribbean less sweet, Jamaicans make tea out of cerasee. With every sip you need to remind yourself of its alleged health benefits, de-pimpling the skin being one of them.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Ras el-hanout: the head of the shop

ayer upon layer of ground spices get scooped up and mixed to zhush up tagines, the ubiquitous, and otherwise not that exciting, North African meat-and-veg stews. Apparently, there is no set recipe and each shop and housewife make their own mix. So, basically, it's just all spices you could get hold of, arranged aesthetically.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Hochar Pére et Fils, Lebanese wine

The Lebanese stand out among their neighbours like a sore thumb. Or rather like a rich dowager's manicured and bejewelled thumb. When the ancient Hebrews were still camelbacking the arid expanses of the biblical desert, the Phoenicians from whom the modern Lebanese directly descend were already conducting a busy trade as far afield as Britain and India.

Four thousand years ago they were already good peddling wine to the less mobile Mediterraneans. You can fathom the reasons of such wide-reaching popularity, if you taste any wine from
the Hochar vineyards in Lebanon's Bekaa valley. Rich, lush, delicately balanced and decidedly French in style they are nothing that you would expect from such a war-torn land. During the civil war, the Hochars would keep on picking grapes and making wine in the midst of Israeli shelling and bombardments. Phoenicians have outlived pharaonic Egyptians, Alexander the Great, Romans, Byzantines, Arab conquests, Mongols, Turks, and the French. Centuries from now, they will also most likely be the first to start interstellar wine trade.

Friday, May 7, 2010

New King, Chinese restaurant @Zeedijk, Amsterdam

This food is better than in Bangkok!

Phew, what a relief. I was very nervous about taking out my visiting Thai friend's posh mom for dinner. Thais are notoriously picky about food and many a Chinese takeaway in Amsterdam (as is the case elsewhere in the West) proffers a horrible slimy fare that is, for no fathomable reason, very click with the locals.

New King on Zeedijk is a notable exception. Year in, year out, I have relied on them for consistently great, yet very affordable, Southern Chinese lunches anddinners.

Recently, they have refurbished their interior from no-frills roadside cafe to post-modern urban Chinoiserie. The quality of food remained unaffected. For those unfamiliar with dishes, there is a pciture-only menu.

The portions are huge. The starters platter is good enough for a lunch for two. Fish comes whole (without the intestines naturally). The best way to order is Asian style: get one fewer dishes than the number of people in the party and share. Example of a well-ordered meal, The Best of the Land, the Sea, the Sky, the Rice Field and the Tea Plantation: one meat dish, one fish, one chicken, one veg, a bowl of rice and a pot of Chinese tea.

This is the starters platter: various steamed and deep-fried dim sum bits +
sateh, skewered chicken breast with peanut sauce. These people sure know how to deep-fry food properly.

Sweet and sour fish is always a delight in New King: lean and crispy on the outside, juicy and flaky on the inside, the sauce light and fresh-tasting with a discernible ginger zing.

Peking duck cooked to perfection, with a crisp crunchy browned skin, fat melted away and moist flesh. Shame it is not served the traditional Beijing way with paper-thin rice crepes and julienned green onions.

The real knack of cooking Chinese broccoli (kai lan) is to hardly cook it at all. It just needs to be heated quickly to bring out its natural sweetness while preserving the delightful crunchiness. Here they got it just right by stir-frying it with garlic and oyster sauce.

The proof of dinner is in eating, innit?

New King
Zeedijk 115-117
1012 AV

open Monday to Sunday
11.30pm to 24.00am

Thursday, May 6, 2010

How to cook salsify

alsify is one of those "forgotten" vegetables that used to be on everybody's plate before the more alluring tomatoes, potatoes, corn and the ilk hit the Old World's shores and took everybody's fancy for centuries to come.

Although biologically not related, salsify reminds of the Japanese gobou both in shape, taste and texture: long and thin, earthy and crunchy. Both need to be cooked well to become chewable and both have that unmistakable earthy flavour of a root vegetable. The best way to enjoy gobou is kimpira gobou.

Salsify just needs that flavour to be underlined. The recipe could not be simpler:
  1. Pick a couple of perky, not flabby, roots, peel them, removing occasional brown bits.
  2. Cut into 2-inch chunks and immerse into slightly acidic water to prevent discolouration.
  3. Boil 15-20 minutes in plain water with a bit of saltuntil it becomes soft-ish, but well before it starts falling apart.
  4. Sauté in butter with sliced shiitake. Add salt, pepper and a splash of single cream towards the end.

The shiitake meshes well with salsify's flavour. Here it is shown served with chicken burgers, coconut rice and avocado.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Tokyo Cafe: all-you-can-eat sushi in Amsterdam

This location was once thought to be cursed. Every establishment in this pale grey Art Noveau house in the heart of Amsterdam would have failed. A whole string of entrepreneurs came, tried and filed for bankruptcy. Until Tokyo Café, a Japanese restaurant as you may have already guessed, moved in and apparently broke the spell with some potent Chinese business voodoo.

The main crowd magnet is, of course, the all-you-can-eat buffet. Twenty-odd euros buy you two hours of time to stuff your face with rice and raw fish. Apparently, no Dutchie worth his clogs can walk past that: the place is jam-packed every evening, advance booking highly recommended. The first evening shift is not much fun: arrive at 6 and you will be promptly kicked out by 8. However, the 8:15 shift allows you to linger for an extra hour, when no orders can be made any more, but you can sit back to savour the aftermath of your hectic chow fest and pore over your (very decent) green tea ice-cream.

Never mind the tacky name (no self-respecting sushi place in Japan would be called that), the overall quality of food is consistent. Skip the kodomo-damashi (kids-cheating) sushi made with omelette (tamago), fake crab sticks (kani), or tofu skin (inari) and tuck in the real stuff with proper fish: there are about a dozen different kinds. Naturally, expect no uni or toro served for the price, but unagi and tako are very decent. There is a fair choice of ippin-ryori, "Japanese-style tapas", as they are explained to the uninitiated: seaweed salads, grilled meats, steamed edamame beans etc. Worth trying once you got your fill of sushi (how ever can that happen to anyone?)

Over the years, they have slowly improved the ordering system and you do not need any more to sit on the edge of your seat watching your lackadaisical waitress barely dragging her feet to deliver the paper with your order to the kitchen as the clock goes tick-tock tick-tock towards the shift end. Nowadays, you get everything you ordered on big lacquer trays with hardly any delay. Woe betide you though, should you have any leftovers: you will be charged the regular price for every unfinished bit.

The waiting staff are a typical Amsterdam multi-racial mixture, severely ill-advised late-teenagers and early-twenties, whose idea of customer service is a smug leering smirk permanently glued to their faces and a "cool" ghettoesque attitude servilely adopted from MTV Base.

Pro's: It's SUSHI, stupid!
Con's: Sashimi costs extra.
In a nutshell: A great place to scratch the sushi itch on the cheap.

Tokyo Cafe
Spui 15
1012 WX Amsterdam, Netherlands
020 4897918


This video will open your eyes to what rally stands behind sushi and sashimi.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Ten Katemarkt: urban grocery shopping Amsterdam style

There are no supermarkets in Amsterdam. A lot of oversized grocery stores with ready-made dinners, frozen food and various packaged victuals, but supermarkets, shopping malls - forget about it. Local laws designed to protect the small shopkeepers banish cut-throat discount shopping emporia out of the city. That is why the true local - and only possible - way to shop for food in Amsterdam is to hop on your bicycle and make rounds of your favourite shops. Cheese at the cheesemonger's, bread at the baker's, vegetables at your local Turk, meat at your local Morroccan and so on. Fresh markets are an integral part of this experience.

Ten Katemarkt used to be my first point of call when I lived in Amsterdam. It is a fairly typical neighbourhood market selling everything from French cheese and Indonesian fast food to bicycle locks and marked down socks.

The variety and quality of fresh produce here is representative of the average Amsterdammer's eating and buying habits.

A 50-cent fruit-and-veg stall: from the Dutch farmers' favourite kale and cucumbers to Aziatische ginger and bean sprouts. Same amount will set you back you a whole one pound in London, ouch! Life on islands is notoriously expensive.

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French/Mediterranean delicatessen have become an integral part of the urban middle-class diet since Southern European immigrants hit the Dutch shores in the late 20th century. At this stall Spanish chorizo, pickled olives and stuffed peppers are sold at one third of the price at the highly disappointing yet ever so popular Albert Heijn supermarkets.

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At this beer snacks and sweets stall, your typical beer-guzzling Dutchie gets quite a varied mix that besides traditional and generic commercial cheezits and pringles includes an array of traditional Surinamese and Indonesian dainties.

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At this fancier veg stall you can stock up on fresh cantarellas (giroles) mushrooms, Japanese shiso, Jerusalem artichoke and just generally better looking and tasting quality produce. With prices to match, mind you.

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This intensely fragrant stall is run by Turks: on offer are various less common beans (like fava), cereals (bulgur, barley or buckwheat), dried fruit, pickled olives, peppers and dolmas as well as the best quality fresh and potted herbs I could ever find in the Dutch capital.

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The Dutch are an ichthyophobe (fish-hating) nation so the fish supply is always on the skimpy side. Besides the local déesse suprême, the superb Dutch herring, and the holy trinity of kabeljauw, zalm and paling (cod, salmon, eel), it's mostly mussels and gambas (large gummy shrimp entirely devoid of any taste). This stall is very typical, it reminds me of one guy's feet: he doesn't like them because he thinks they are dirty so he just stops taking care of them and so they just get dirtier. Most of the produce here is (re-)frozen and smells accordingly. Good fish and seafood is a 10-min bike ride away at the Chinese market.

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The mobile baker typically runs out of bread by mid-afternoon: it is so popular because bread in the "supermarkets" generally tastes like mud.

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This cheese-monger is a delight. He carries an array of French, Italian, Dutch and Spanish cheeses.Every day something nice is marked down, well worth dropping by to check!

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For many Dutch sandwich is what they have for breakfast, lunch and sometimes even dinner. In the recent years it has gone from basic cheese or ham to more inventive Mediterranean-influenced creations. Here you you can have a sandwich whipped up to your liking.

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In this Surinamese takeway recipes hail from the rather obscure former Dutch colony in South America, Suriname, where African, Indian, Indonesian and Chinese culinary traditions intermarried and gave birth to this lovely cinnamon-coloured baby, Surinamese food. Unlike the food, the human Surinamese working at the shop seem extremely adverse to being taken pictures of. They will chase you and try to knock you off if you ever do. Caveat emptor!

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Kema Vlees is a supermarket-style butcher. Several years ago they did away with the quaint old-fashioned system where you take numbers to be served personally by butcher in favour of a more mass-oriented and highly efficient system where you just pick pre-packaged bits and pay for them at the cashier's. The personal touch is gone but you are rewarded with speed, convenience and surprisingly reasonable prices: a massive juicy and flavourful rib-eye steak here will only cost you 3-4 Euros. Makes you feel almost like in Argentina.

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De Volkskruiden Tuin is a West Asian grocer run by a jovial blue-eyed Afghani. Wafts of lavender, turmeric and verbena aromas give away this presence from quite a distance. Inside, the heady mix of spices, herbal teas and various Persian and Afghani produce envelops you and won't let you go without some fragrant purchase. Featured mostly in gory and scary news, Iran and Afghanistan are home to such refined delights as dried mulberries, orange blossom jam, gol gavzaban tea, dried limes used for stews, and fresh tarragon as a common starter.

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Sunday, May 2, 2010

On top of the world: La Place@Openbare Bibliotheek, Amsterdam

This is one of Amsterdam's new hidden gems. La Place is a fancy-ish cafeteria chain that churns out international cuisine of consistent quality in the nice shopping malls and highway service areas. What makes this one, located in the recently built Openbare Bibliotheek (Public Library), special is its location. Overlooking Central Amsterdam and Het IJ (the body of presently brackish water that once was served as Amsterdam's haven), it is one of the best designed post-modern buildings I have ever seen. Seven floors of spaces created to lure people back to the joys of reading - although hundreds of high-speed internet terminals might get in the way of that highly commendable plan.

My organic jamon serrano and ruccola pizza was perfect - hand-rolled in front of me and baked in a wood oven - at 8.50 euros a bargain for the Dutch capital. The ethically sourced organic vegetarian shake tasted much better than it sounds. As many cheesy travel stories end: I'll be back!