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Archive for March, 2011

view of St. Paul's cathedral from our table at Barbecoa

When Barbecoa opened last fall, Jamie Oliver’s name got thrown around a lot.  For me, though, the draw was his partner, Adam Perry Lang, whose BBQ shows and cookbook many of my barbecue-loving friends in the US swear by.

Early blog reports were not good.  Neither Cheese and Biscuits nor Food Stories enjoyed their meal there, but because their reviews were written so early and left me with the impression that they’d hated their steaks, I thought perhaps over time things might improve on the barbecue front.  After all, when I go out for barbecue, I’m not looking for a steak.  In fact, I’d be surprised if a barbecue place in the US even offered steak on the menu.  So query why reviews like this one in TimeOut seemed to suggest a good barbecue place should be serving lots of steak?  (“For a barbecue restaurant, the choice of beef steaks is very limited . . . .”)

Jon and I turned up on a Friday night.  It was my first trip to the shiny New Change shopping mall (where Barbecoa sits).  In that sense, it definitely felt like America.

Barbecoa is a huge space with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking St. Paul’s Cathedral.  But I’m sad to say that like many places with fantastic views, Barbecoa should work a little harder at its food.

crispy calamari, smashed avocado, lemon and mustard greens (£10)

When Jon and I looked over the menu, we were disappointed to see relatively few barbecue dishes.  I can now see why people have been ordering steaks and burgers — the menu offerings are really heavy on those.  That’s fine for a steak place, but this is supposed to be a barbecue place!  Why are baby back ribs served only as an appetizer?  Why, for that matter, is only one style of ribs served?  And where’s the fried chicken?  Buttermilk biscuits?  Now, I’m not claiming Blue Smoke in New York is the paragon of barbecue places, but this is more what I was expecting from Barbecoa.

Jon and I tried to zero in on the more “American” looking dishes, like the crab cakes.  Alas, our server informed us that no crab cakes were offered that evening and tried to push us towards a crab salad instead.  When we ended up ordering the fried calamari, the waiter asked us why we didn’t want the crab salad, which I thought was a funny thing for him to do.  He was surprised to hear that crab cakes, in our opinion, are a special American treat – hard to find in London.  Crab salad, on the other hand, not so special.

It was probably for the best that we ended up with fried calamari given the non-existence of jumbo lump crab meat in London.  And the calamari, while a relatively small portion for £10, were good.  Greaseless and not rubbery.  The smashed avocado was pretty useless, though.

baby back ribs with an apple cole slaw (£9)

Baby back ribs as a starter had its high and low points.  It was pretty weird.  A few of the ribs were very good, with the right amount of spice and tang and a falling-off-the-bone texture.  Other ribs, though, were a bit dry and tough.  From one point of view, it’s remarkable that ribs right next to each other could taste so differently.  But it didn’t make for a pleasant dining experience.

pulled pork shoulder with jalapeno corn bread (£16)

Finding nothing else among the mains that looked “barbecuey,” both Jon and i ordered the pulled pork shoulder.  I’d hoped the cornbread would be served in a way where you could make a pulled pork sandwich (which is *the* way to eat pulled pork, imho).  But no.  The cornbread was just damp and oily, so nothing much has changed on that front since Food Stories and Cheese & Biscuits ate at Barbecoa.

Jon and I ordered the “bread board and butter” for £4 in order to make our own sandwiches topped with the cole slaw that accompanied our pulled pork.  That improved things somewhat, though the bread board, as you’ll see below, isn’t ideal for making sandwiches:

bread board and butter (£4)

With just two glasses of wine, our total came to £86 for the two of us.

Service was polite and extraordinarily fast (Barbecoa’s slick-looking ordering systems waste no time in ensuring your food gets to the table asap, and the tables turn at dizzying speed), but based on our experience, the staff don’t seem particularly enthused or knowledgeable about barbecue.

So go for the views of St. Paul.  Bring your out-of-town friends and drop by for drinks.  But don’t go for the barbecue.  *Sigh*

Barbecoa, 20 New Change Passage, EC4M 9AG; 0203 005 8555.


Fifteen on Urbanspoon

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hotel entrance to Locanda Locatelli

It’s Friday, and we’re talking to our friends about where to meet for dinner on Saturday.  They feel like having Italian food.  “Good luck with that,” I think.  I can count on one hand the reliably-good Italian restaurants in London, and they’re always fully booked on Saturday night.

Well, the last laugh’s on me, because our friends worked some magic:   Saturday night dinner reservations at Locanda Locatelli at 9:30 pm.  I’ve never been to Locanda, but I know it’s expensive, and the food is supposed to be good.   So off we go.

First impressions are good.  The room is large, but the layout allows for lots of inviting nooks and crannies.  Our table has a nice, curved banquette.  I love banquettes.

beef carpaccio (£15)

Pork sausage, Savoy cabbage and saffron risotto starter (£13.50)

Generally, the menu offerings sound pedestrian, but most of them are well executed.  Take, for example, the beef carpaccio and platter of cured meats.  There’s a generous serving of both and the ingredients are fresh and delicious.  Still, they seem more a reflection of top-notch sourcing than of top-notch cooking.

Sadly, the one starter we ordered that was served in an unexpected way (i.e., the pork sausage and risotto) wasn’t especially tasty.  I wasn’t expecting the risotto to be a fritter, and while I am normally a lover of all things fried, having a crispy wedge of fried risotto to accompany a massive ball of sausage, all drizzled in a rich sauce, was just unrelentingly heavy.

And an artichoke salad with rocket and Parmigiano Reggiano was a total disappointment, especially for £15.  There was no interesting blending of flavors or textures.  It was as if it were a plate with three separate ingredients on it, which just reinforced my impression that it’s tough to get a decent salad in London.

We did much better with mains, which I’d say were the highlight of our dinner:

lobster linguine (£24.50)

Thanks to ingenious use of lobster stock, the lobster linguine was packed with lobster flavor despite a very stingy portion of lobster meat.  I greatly enjoyed this one, though the presentation was a little scary.  What’s with the random lobster leg jutting out like that?

Potato and mushroom gnocchi with black truffle (£19.50)

Potato-and-mushroom gnocchi with black truffle was my second-fave pasta course of the evening.  Pillowy-soft gnocchi perfumed with truffle.  Perfect.  Presentation is what you’d call rustic if you were being generous, though.

orecchiete with turnip tops, garlic and anchovies (£18)

Orecchiete was the low point of our pastas.  It was a giant plate of mush, really.  The pasta tasted as if it’d been sitting around a while, and again, the flavors didn’t blend at all.  Jon and I make a much better version of this dish at home.

braised lamb neck with polenta (£27.50)

The braised lamb neck with buttery polenta ticked all the boxes for a good braise:  fork tender, lots of rich fatty bits and a strong sauce for you to mop up.  A little more polenta to accompany the enormous portion of meat would’ve been ideal.

Contorni were a very mixed bag.  The fried artichoke (£6) was masterful, with each artichoke leaf perfectly battered and crisped, but the rest of the contorni were skippable.  Fried potatoes (£4.50) were just crispy cubes of potatoes – dressed up chips, really.  Regular ol’ broccoli and chili was £4.75 and lacking both kick and flavor.  Sauteed spinach (£4.75) was satisfying, but it’s garlic and spinach, yes?

terribly un-tasty tiramisu (£6.50)

Worst menu moment was the tiramisu.  A total crime.  Stale ladyfingers doused in a runny mascarpone and drowned in amoretto.  Despite sharing one portion among four people, we didn’t come close to finishing it, and I was mildly disappointed none of our servers bothered to ask why a little martini glass of tiramisu went only half-eaten.

With extras like a £77 bottle of a very tasty Sicilian red wine and a couple glasses of digestifs, our total for four came to £300 (£75 a person).  It was a fun evening out with friends, but given the generally-pedestrian and unven food, I wouldn’t recommend a visit.  And I definitely can’t help comparing our dinner at Locanda with my repeat dinner at Trullo just this past Monday night.

At Trullo, I paid £26 a person for a starter, an excellent pasta, a shared main of braised lamb neck, and a shared dessert (i.e., the tastiest caramel pannacotta, ever).  Service at Trullo was friendly and helpful, so the only thing that was superior about Locanda was its comfortable seating and dining room, and that’s not worth the price premium, I reckon.

Locanda Locatelli, 8 Seymour Place, W1H 7JZ; 0207 935 9088; closest Tube station:  Marble Arch

If you’re looking for Italian restaurants in London, you might also be interested in:

Locanda Locatelli on Urbanspoon

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The chalkboard menu on the wall at #Meateasy

First, I saw this interview in January by Helen @ Food Stories and this post by Lizzie @ Hollow Legs.  The former gave me all the background context behind temporary burger joint, #Meateasy,  and the latter let me know that I could easily (i.e., using the Tube system) reach New Cross on the new East London line.  Fair or not, I figure anything that requires use of National Rail is a lot of hassle.

Soon after I saw those blog posts, there was this rave review by the anonymous pros over at TimeOut.   And yet #Meateasy remained one of those things that sounded good but which I never motivated to visit, and then I was recently reminded of it by this post by Critical Couple.  So off we finally went.

Jon and I arrived last Friday at 6:40 pm and were given raffle ticket number 80.  When the lovely people at the till call your raffle ticket number, you place your order.

At the time we arrived, raffle ticket #20 was just getting called, so we were glad we showed up 2 hours before we normally eat dinner.

We snagged the last two open seats at a communal table and Jon set off for the bar.   Drinks were great (the much-praised bartenders there def live up to the hype) and cost just £4.50 each, but I’d definitely recommend going to #Meateasy with more than two people so that one person isn’t sitting alone at the table for long stretches while the other is at the bar.  On that Friday evening, the wait was at least 30 minutes to order a drink, so with a bigger group, you can rotate that responsibility around.

#Meateasy’s allure stems largely from its relaxed, lively honky-tonk atmosphere.  It’s fun just to be there.   Servers were young and attractive, though a bit careless and insensitive when one server tried to get me to give up my seat at the table “because people need to eat.”

Lady, I’d be glad to eat if you let me place my order so that I could do that (at that point, we’d been waiting an hour for our number 80 to get called).  Plus, did anyone notice I’m 27 weeks’ pregnant?  In case you’ve never seen a 27-week-old pregnant lady before . . . at this point, I’m huge and it’s getting uncomfortable.  I’m not saying people have to give up their seats for me, but kicking me out of a seat that I claimed fair and square seemed particularly harsh.

Mild rant aside, feeling weird about playing the pregnancy card (she obviously didn’t care), I just said our number was about to be called anyway and we’d be eating soon, so she moved on and kicked out another would-be diner.

Bacon cheeseburger at Meateasy (£7)

Finally, at around 8 pm, about 1 hour 15 minutes after our arrival, our number was called and we ordered our food.  15 minutes later, our food was served, and 15 minutes after that, we were done eating and there was a long queue out the door and down the stairs.  #Meateasy was now operating a one-in-one-out system.

How was the food?  Delish.  But you’ve probably already heard that from others.  I just thought I’d give you a sense for what the experience is like.  It’s crowded, it’s fun, but it has its downsides.

Philly cheesesteak (£7), fries (£3) and onion rings (£3)

My favorite part of the cheeseburger is how #Meateasy lightly steams the bun.  It’s all soft and hot and soaks up all the meat juices and melted cheese.   Philly cheesesteak was impossible to eat as a sandwich, but I mean that as praise.  The cheese, onions, peppers and chopped steak were bursting out of the bun.  Onion rings were good and fries were fine.

ending on a visual high note: an extra sh*t photo of macaroni and cheese (£5)

Mac ‘n’ cheese was the one thing I tried that I wouldn’t order again.  It lacked bite.  As if it were all bechamel and milk and not enough sharp cheese.

Go for the atmosphere and a good time with a group of friends.  Think of it as a great place for drinks with some excellent food as a side benefit.  Arrive two hours before you normally get hungry.  And try to save room for the milk shake. You have until Saturday, 16 April 2011.

However, if you’re interested just in the food (which was good, but in the end not worth all the waiting and hassle), then just stick with your local Byron Burger.

And yes, I know all these photos are sh*t.  I blame the deadly combo of mobile phone camera + #Meateasy’s dark interior.

#Meateasy, 1st floor of the Goldsmiths Tavern, 316 New Cross Road, SE14 6AF; no phone number but it’s no reservations anyway.  Cash only.  Closest Tube station:  New Cross (East London line);  Open until Saturday, 16 April 2011.

#Meateasy on Urbanspoon

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Food bloggers are an eclectic bunch, but one thing I’ve noticed is that many of us are not parents.   Which makes sense as I’d imagine that parents either don’t want to or can’t afford to eat out five times a week.  Or a combination of both.

As the title of this post suggests, I’m several months away from joining the parent club, and on the long list of things I’m nervous about is the question of what’s going to happen to this restaurant/travel blog.  (Suggestions?)

For now, though, I thought I’d talk about all the food restrictions I’ve been trying to observe these last six months.

I consider myself an omnivore with all sorts of cravings (even when not pregnant).  So the long list of pregnancy-related dietary prohibitions have chafed, to say the least.  I especially dislike how, most of the time, the prohibitions don’t even bother explaining *why* something is prohibited, which is so patronizing that I get angry all over again thinking about it.

Let’s start, for example, with the following excerpt from  the NHS guidelines on eating when pregnant (which of course overlaps with, and occasionally conflicts with, several other pages on the NHS site, like this one and this one):

  • Do cook eggs thoroughly until the whites and yolks are solid. Avoid any foods that contain raw or lightly cooked eggs, such as home-made mayonnaise, sauces and puddings.
  • Do make sure that all meats are cooked thoroughly. This is especially important with poultry (such as chicken and turkey) and food made from minced meat (such as burgers and sausages). Make sure that they’re very hot all the way through, and there’s no trace of blood or pink meat. Treat all meat at barbecues with caution.
  • Don’t eat mould-ripened soft cheese, such as brie and camembert, or blue cheese, such as stilton or Danish blue. You can eat hard cheeses (e.g. cheddar, parmesan), cottage cheese, mozzarella, and processed cheese (such as cheese spread).
  • Don’t eat any kind of paté, including vegetable paté, because it can contain listeria.
  • Don’t eat liver or liver products, such as liver paté or liver sausage, as this is a very rich source of vitamin A (which can harm your unborn baby).
  • Don’t eat more than two portions of oily fish a week (for example, mackerel, trout or fresh tuna), or more than four cans of tuna (around 140g per can). These contain high levels of mercury, which can harm your baby’s developing nervous system.
  • Don’t eat marlin, shark or swordfish. These can contain high levels of mercury, which can damage your baby’s developing nervous system.
  • Don’t eat raw shellfish, as they can contain bacteria and viruses that can cause food poisoning.

If you’re aything like me, the list above might as well be titled “Delicious Things You Love and Eat Regularly That You Can’t Eat for 40 Weeks . . . for No Clearly Articulated Reason (other than “trust us, it’s bad for your baby”).”

Being a naturally skeptical person, I started googling around to find out what risks really underlie all these Dietary Do’s and Don’ts.  God bless google because on my first search, I came across this July 2007 piece in the New York Times, which opened with this compelling paragraph:

“WHEN my wife was pregnant with our son, her obstetrician gave her a list of food dos and don’ts. Chief among the don’ts: alcohol, unpasteurized cheeses and raw fish. Meanwhile, every French mother I know consumed alcohol and unpasteurized cheese in moderation during her pregnancy, and my friends in Japan laugh at the notion of avoiding sushi when they’re expecting.”

And at least with regard to sushi, I was encouraged by this bit:

“Healthy women who’ve been eating sushi are not at increased risk when they become pregnant. The same resistance and immunities function before, during and after pregnancy.

But rational analysis doesn’t hold sway with the pregnancy police.

“Why take any risk?” they ask. The medical establishment and the culture at large have twisted logic around to the point where any risk, no matter how infinitesimal, is too much. So powerful is this Puritanical impulse that, once a health objection is raised, however irrational the recommended behavior, it’s considered irresponsible to behave any other way.”

And then, as is the way with google research, that New York Times article led me to this blog post, which started me on the path to the way I’m currently eating:

“First, I did a lot of research about every prohibition. What was the reason for it? And what was the risk and the consequence? I found that you could divvy up the guidelines into two groups:  illnesses that crossed the placental barrier and affected the fetus, and those that didn’t. To put it another way, would eating something make me any sicker because I was pregnant than if I weren’t? Or would the outcome be the same?”

So I did pretty much what the blogger-author did — I started researching each and every prohibition, particularly on the foods I eat all the time, and I decided to avoid foods that are banned because they contain listeria and continue eating foods that are banned because they cause food poisoning. For example, to the lovers of poached eggs who happen to be pregnant, see this March 2010 Guardian Word of Mouth blog post on eggs and salmonella risk:

Not only is the risk of catching salmonella small, the risk of it affecting your unborn child is almost unheard of. The infection won’t pass through the placenta to the foetus, unlike listeria which can do untold harm. However, after reading on the New Zealand government website that in very rare instances it can cause stillbirth, I thought it best to double check.

According to Patrick O’Brien, consultant obstetrician at UCH and a spokesperson for the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, in severe cases of salmonella the related dehydration and high fever in the mother could cause a problem for the foetus, just as with any other infection, but these are generally symptoms which are well managed by medical professionals. He has dealt with some extremely severe cases of salmonella and none have caused any harm to the foetus. It is worth noting, however, that in the spirit of never say never he would not completely rule out an instance in which salmonella could cause harm directly to the foetus. It seems that it is all very low risk, and it has left me questioning the official advice which still recommends that pregnant women avoid raw or partially cooked eggs, and wondering whether it’s worth being quite so assiduous.

So.  Bearing in mind that I’m no doctor and that for a lot of people, it’s not a big deal to just follow the Dos and Don’ts as prescribed by most pregnancy books and websites, I thought I’d share the above.  Just in case you’re pregnant and have been dying for oysters, sushi, dolsot bibimbap or eggs benedict.

Currently,  however, I remain very excited by the future prospect of a bloody rare burger, some extra-runny Saint Marcellin cheese, a platter of jamon iberico, a good pate and gallons of champagne when la bebee finally arrives.  But I have a feeling that when that day is finally upon me, “sleep” will leapfrog to the top of that list of desired things.

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