Little Chef, Kettering West

For the last few years, everytime we’re on the motorway, I look at the Little Chefs along the way and remind myself to find a reason to travel south and visit Heston’s one. Obviously, I’ve never actually managed to organise it. The other day, I was looking through my Good Food Guide and came across Little Chef’s entry. Apparently, Heston has 3 now and, guess what, we’ve been driving past one of them about once a month on average. Including the day before I made this discovery.

Worry not though, as I managed to get my fix on my next visit of the A14. It took us a while to find it, because of Google Map’s incompetence (according to me) or my incompetence (according to the boyfriend). But when we walked in, all was good. I loved the diner-style decor, the staff was smiley and helpful and the menu looked good.

I was tempted by the Tag Bol (tagliatelle rather than spaghetti) – making a good Bolognese is a test every kitchen should have to pass before being allowed to serve food. But in the end, I couldn’t say no to the braised ox cheeks.

My picture just doesn’t do this dish justice. The cheeks were moist and tender, and any bits of fat running through the meat had been cooked for long enough to turn soft and pleasantly wobbly. The sauce was the real surprise for me, dark and intensely flavoured, and with the odd pearl onion adding sweetness. The boyfriend described the mash as “buttery but not greasy” and I happily used it to mop up the leftover gravy.

The steak and ale pie was almost as good, but ultimately I think I won with my choice. The filling was encased by a lovely, flakey and thin suet pastry. The not very attractive-looking green mush around it was a surprisingly good minty pea puree. I liked that a lot. The filling could have been a bit more flavoursome but this was still a good dish.

This is food you expect to find in a good gastropub, rather than on the side of a motorway. It might not be the prettiest location for a restaurant, but smart double-glazing makes for a pleasant eating experience and, to be honest, there’s something quite old-fashionedly romantic about pausing your journey to have a good, honest plate of food. We’ll be stopping there again.

High point: The sauce that came with the ox cheeks. And the staff. Really lovely without being even slightly pretentious. Very relaxed atmosphere.

Low point: Couldn’t find it on Google Maps. It’s not the Thrapston one, and it’s not Kettering East.

The money: Just over £20 for our two mains, a coke and a cappuccino. Massive portions. Really good value.

Go with: Co-travellers. Treat the driver (although in this case, the driver treated me).

Top 10 things I ate in 2010

Like most good things in life, you can have enough of reading other people’s blog lists at the end of a calendar year. And there’s only one thing to do then: go and make your own.

So here are some things I ate and liked in 2010. I am not pretending that 70% of my favourite dishes are mine – this is more of a list of my favourite posts. And maybe someone will find a recipe to try or a restaurant to visit and my yet-another-2010-list will be justified. 

1. Stuffed Onions
I do love Greek-style stuffed vegetables – peppers, tomatoes, aubergines. This was the first time I had stuffed onions. A pain to peel off onion layers whole, but worth it. Soft and sweet onions, meaty filling, caramelised- almost burnt- edges. Lovely.

2. Homemade Pita Bread
A revelation not in the taste sense (not the first time I’ve had pita bread!) but because of how easy they were to make. Great effort to result ratio and one of those things I make several times a month. A real keeper.

3. Apple Tarte Tatin
Possibly my favourite pudding ever – maybe I’m biased, but I thought my version was comparable to the one we had at Launceston Place. Take that Tristan Welch.

4. Lamb and Spinach Curry
I thought I preferred chicken curries to lamb ones. What a fool. Can’t wait to try this with goat, like the original recipe suggested.

5. Aubergine in Yoghurt
This blog does love aubergines (maybe even more than steak…) and I’m always happy when I find new ways to cook them. These Indian-style aubergines are spicy and creamy and perfect as a side to a curry. Leftovers make great sandwiches when wrapped in pita bread.

6. Oxtail Ragu
Oxtail makes for a great ragu because you first cook it on the bone and the marrow melts away, creating a rich, thick, flavoursome sauce. When it’s done, the meat will be falling off the bone. Serve with homemade pasta and wear some stretchy trousers.

7. Chinese Pork with Aubergines and Crackling
Maybe not the most authentic recipe – it was a mish mash of the few things I know about Chinese cooking. It worked though. I bloody love aubergines. And crackling should be served with everything.

and a few more I didn’t make myself…

8. Goose Egg and Mushroom at Launceston Place
I loved the whole meal, and in a way it is a bit of a shame that the highlight was something I only had a tiny bite of. I want this egg to myself and I am going to have it soon. First New Year’s resolution, done.

9. Fish Fragrant Aubergines at Chilli Cool
Have I mentioned that I love aubergines? These were silky, soft, sweet and spicy. And there was some pork, which always improves things. The whole place is an absolute bargain too.

10. Game Ragu with Polenta at Alimentum
You know a plate of food is good when you dream about it for months after you’ve had it. Maybe I should ask for a double portion for my main next time I go. And have it for starter too.

So, for 2011, I’m hoping I’ll get to try a few more exciting restaurants, make some more tasty meals and, erm, finish my thesis (because I’ve promised myself a Midsummer House meal when I do so). I’m also hoping for other, more selfless things, like world peace and stuff, but this is my blog so I’ll keep it personal (and selfish).

In short, may 2011 be a new and improved version of 2010, for everyone.

Alimentum, Cambridge

Most of Cambridge restaurants offer mediocre food and try to make up for it with the pretty surroundings. Most of them are chains, since they are the only ones that can afford the ridiculously high rent for a spot in the town centre.

Alimentum does it the other way round. Situated on the side of a main road, with a Travelodge opposite, it uses the quality of its food to attract customers. It’s probably not the most popular dining establishment for students; I always found it easier to pop across the street to a Pizza Express. But, with a set lunch/early dinner menu priced at £16.50, it is not just affordable, but a bargain.

Quite a few of us went there for lunch recently to try their Christmas menu. We started with a complimentary “Beer and Onion” amuse bouche. A white froth was poured over little cubes of beer jelly and bits of onions and the whole thing ended up tasting a lot more complex than we expected.

I had of course already decided what I was ordering, days before our lunch! The game ragu with polenta is exactly my kind of food: rich and meaty, with creamy polenta and a grating of salty parmesan to top it off. Absolutely delicious.

My main was a soy braised pork belly, salty and fatty. If I can fault this somewhere I would say that the sauce could be a bit too salty for some, but luckily I tend to overseason my food anyway. It was served with the creamiest sweet potato puree and some refreshing pak choi to cut through the richness.

We of course wanted to try the dessert too, and I chose the white chocolate delice with passion fruit jelly and ice cream. The white chocolate delice was a sweet and airy mousse and the jelly provided texture and sharpness. Even tangier was the the smooth passion fruit sorbet which was face-blowing by itself but balanced the white chocolate perfectly.

Coffee was served with petits fours and both the marshmallow and the mini sticky toffee pudding that I tried were excellent. Three hours after we had arrived, we left happy, full and just a little bit tipsy. That’s what lunch should always be like.

High point: The pudding? The starter? Can’t choose.

Low point: The location I suppose. But it’s a short walk from the train station. All you Londoners can hop down for a great lunch and a spot of sightseeing.

The money: Just over £30 for 3 courses, a couple of glasses of wine and coffee.

Go with: Friends. A date. Your parents. Everyone.

Chilli Cool, Bloomsbury

Saying that Chilli Cool has been reviewed by many before is certainly an understatement. I was already well informed about what to order from this and this and this post. And I knew I would love it.

This is the kind of place you want to go with sharers. There are so many lovely dishes and you really don’t want to be stuck eating just one of them while staring at other people’s food!

The starters were cold, which was maybe a little surprising, but the Szechuan Chicken was very tender.

Even better was the Pork Belly in Garlic Sauce which was so thinly sliced and silky that it actually took me a while to figure out what I was eating. And somehow I mean this as a compliment!

The beans were brilliant, crunchy, charred, salty, with porky bits to add flavour. As an added bonus, you felt you were almost being healthy eating them.

I can’t actually find a picture of a dish I loved, the shredded pork. Maybe because I was too busy stuffing my face with it. But above is my real favourite, as expected, the Sea Spicy Aubergine. This was so awesome that I am still dreaming about it, a few weeks later. It was silky, sweet, spicy and resulted in a certain male companion sheepishly admitting it was his favourite dish. He seemed relieved when we told him there was pork in there too and tried to pretend he knew all along, but that’s high praise coming from him thinking it was a vegetarian dish!

High point: The aubergines.

Low point: Not many. When I ate a chilli?

The money: £12 with tea and tip, and we ate until we ached. Bargain.

Go with: Friends who like to share. Bonus points for liking tripe.

Bea’s of Bloomsbury, Holborn

Even if the Cambridge food scene isn’t very interesting, I feel like I’m not allowed to say such a thing, having yet to visit places like Midsummer House and Alimentum. It’s just that in London the choices multiply and the prices (at least for the quality you’re getting) drop. I can’t but love it.

A weekend in early June we found ourselves heading down to the capital for a little food adventure. After stuffing our faces with the brilliant (and unexpectedly large) lunch at Launceston Place, we headed to our next stop: Bea’s of Bloomsbury. I had never heard of it before, but a friend works nearby and had great things to say about the little cafe in Holborn.

We were booked in for afternoon tea which includes a scone and several mini brownies and cupcakes. I started with the mini raspberry meringue, which turned out to be my least favourite. It was pretty to look at and lovely to eat, with a crumbly texture, but I found it a little too sweet for my liking. I still hadn’t recovered from lunch though, so maybe that was the problem.

The scone, obviously served with clotted cream and jam, was one of the best I’ve had. It’s been over two months since then but I can still remember the moist, crumbly texture and the slightly salty taste that went perfectly with the sweet jam. It was rich but somehow still light and I could have eaten them all day.

I was hoping that my Lapsang Souchong would help me digest my lunch and manage some of the cakes but, after having the scone, things started to look pretty desperate. Thankfully, we all agreed we’d rather take the rest of the cakes away and try again later in the day. When we did manage them, I was pleasantly surprised at how moist the sponge was and how fruity the icing. It was a close competition but the favourite was probably the passion fruit one.

If I had to complain about something it would have to be the place itself. We were there on a hot summer’s afternoon and since there was no air conditioning it was quite stuffy. I am sure that’s not a problem for most of the year, thanks to the glorious British weather, but maybe it’s worth looking into it for the few summer days we get. I did like the fact that from where we were sitting we could see the kitchen; it makes you feel that they haven’t got anything to hide!

Bea’s of Bloomsbury does afternoon tea for just under £10 per person and it is well worth it for the quality and amount of stuff you get. You can add savoury mini baguettes for an extra £3. Or you can just drop in and choose a slice (or two) of cake to take away.

Launceston Place, Kensington

I had been looking forward to visiting Launceston Place for a good few months; actually, since I saw Tristan Welch working his magic on Great British Menu. Starting the day with a massive hangover and a 3-hour journey to Kensington was probably not the best appetizer, but the weather was lovely and the short walk from the tube station helped the recovery process.

I have to say, I felt a little intimidated when we walked in, but the waiters were very nice and things got off to a good start when someone cracked a joke and got the sommelier giggling while taking our order for a lovely bottle of Rioja – I just wish I had managed more than a small glass.

We were also given some homemade crisps, tied up with a cute black ribbon, one for each person. We were having the 3-course set menu, so I was pleasantly surprised when a little amuse turned up soon after we ordered. It was a yoghurt sorbet with little pickled cucumber strips, which tasted, unsurprisingly, quite a lot like Indian raitha. It was nice.

For my starter I chose the beef and beetroot risotto, where beetroot bits were playing the role of the rice. It was served with some wild garlic foam, which was yummy and some bone marrow, which freaked me out a bit with its slimy texture, but Alex finished it off quite happily. The thin cured beef slices were absolutely stunning and I really could have eaten a lot more.

The other starter was probably the best dish of the meal. A perfectly poached goose egg, about which we talked for days after, was served alongside some toasted bread with mushroom pate and shaved truffle. There were two mushroom haters that ordered this and declared it a success, so I don’t think it can get much better than that.

My main was a perfect little cylinder of tender lamb, served with the creamiest mashed potato I’ve had in a while and some crunchy, minty stuff on the top. There was also some clear broth that the waiter poured on our plates, and I just felt sad that I didn’t have a spoon to scoop it all up.

After mains, there was another little surprise in the form of Pimm’s gelly topped with lemon and lime granita. Although my hangover wasn’t thankful about the extra alcohol, this little pre-dessert was absolutely yummy, just tart enough and perfectly summery.

I convinced a friend to share the Apple Tart Tatin with me, while everyone else had the Chocolate and Rasberry Mousse. They were both lovely, the tart was as good as they come, with sweet caramelised apples topping flaky puff pastry and served with some superb homemade clotted cream. The mousse was dark and intensely chocolatey.

We turned down coffee as we were planning afternoon tea soon after, but we were still offered a couple of pots of warm mini sponges and cream that were incredibly light and fluffy.

We spent a good few hours after the meal talking about how brilliant everything was and, at £20, it’s a complete bargain. The service was great, the waiters were attentive and we never felt rushed – a perfect lunch.

9/10

Hey, that’s me!

Very excitingly I am being profiled on one of my favourite blogs today, Londonelicious.

Although I live in Cambridge and cook more than I eat out, I do love reading about Krista’s London eating adventures. Her style is unique and entertaining and her blog a very useful guide when it comes to eating in London. I just have to stop myself from reading her posts sometimes as I get too jealous about all that great food and restaurants!

If you got to my blog through Krista’s, you might want to know what kind of posts you will find here. At the moment, most of it is cooking and baking, and I am trying to work my way through 100 new recipes from around the world, from 10 different countries. It’s slow, but it’s fun! If you want to know more about me, you can have a look at my profile page.

The next few posts will include a few more curry recipes, a second attempt at a dessert that, before I burned it, looked like it could become my new favourite dessert, and a (very exciting!) London food adventure!

If you have any suggestions for me, or just want to say hi, please do leave a comment!

Salt and Snow in Austria

I’m writing this now from the safety of my home and my head is not sunburnt anymore, my legs are not in a stupid amount of pain from skiing and my tastebuds have almost recovered from the salt overdose. The weather was beautiful, the snow was fine (although melting quickly) and the food was filling and intense. That much became clear after the first lunch:

By the way, don’t ask me what any of the dishes are called. My friends told me loads of times but my German skills are non-existent and I’ve completely forgotten. My normal approach was to check what people around me were eating and then point at it until someone told me the name. It worked, I think.

Anyway, the heart-attack in a bowl above consisted of some pasta/gnocchi, loads of cheese, crispy onions and tasted quite good despite (or maybe because of) the fact that it was swimming in fat. My heart was racing and it wasn’t because of the skiing-induced adrenaline.

 

Well, here’s to hoping all the bad food is cancelled out by the fresh air, the amazing views and the physical exercise. Who knew that going down a hill could be so tiring.

We stopped at a hut, and I saw someone eating this giant ball of goodness and I wanted one. I was warned by Phil that it is weird but I wanted to give it a go anyway. Well, it was weird. It’s like a giant steam sponge, which is great, and it’s surrounded by vanilla custard which is even better. But then, rather than throwing some chocolate on the top and in the middle, someone decided it would be a good idea to fill it with some fruity jam with Stroh and sprinkle it with enough ground poppy seeds to get you arrested in most countries. It promised so much but it ended up being plain odd.

And this must be the highlight of our culinary experience, although possibly not in a good way. Cheesy sausage. A sausage oozing with cheese at every touch of the knife. Make your own jokes.

I realised today that I had to add salt to my food twice to be able to taste it. Austria, you have destroyed me. There goes my career as a food critic. But it was a sacrifice worth making since this was a great week with beautiful weather, enough skiing and loads of food and drink. A refreshing Almdudler in the sun is a beautiful thing and it is in that and many other respects that the Austrian Alps are so much better that the French ones.

The Big Buddha, Cambridge

– You see, this man-lion strategy problem hasn’t got a fixed point.
– Huh?
– For example, let’s say we all want to go to the Big Buddha tonight. But you and Alex will only go if Raph and I come along. While Raph and I will only go if you and Alex don’t come.
– Well, that’s a bit harsh.
– Same with the lion and the man.
– Right.
– Do you want to go to the Big Buddha tonight?
– Yes please. 

The Big Buddha is a Thai restaurant on the first floor of a building which also accommodates the Ugly Duckling, serving Chinese food, on the ground floor. From the outside there was no other obvious entrance apart from the one leading into the Chinese restaurant. We walked into the (empty) ground floor and found out that the two actually operate together, and we could have either of the menus or mix and match. Uh-oh.

I suppose there is nothing really wrong with a restaurant serving both Chinese and Thai food, but it seemed like a marriage of convenience.

Although the initial plan was for Thai, I got a craving for dumplings and then decided to stick with Chinese for my main too. I shared a starter of them with Alex, who insisted in having them fried rather than steamed.

Fried is okay, but I just love the sticky, silky dough you get from a steamed dumpling. Turns out, they were steamed and then pan-fried. The perfect compromise. The porky filling and the accompanying sauce were lovely too.

The Szechuan pork I had for my main was crispy and meaty and spicy. It looked great and tasted lovely. I’m not a big fan of cashews but Phil polished them off for me and we all had a little (or big!) taste of the chillies. They were quite flavoursome and not as painful as our waiter had suggested when he begged me not to eat them!

I actually preferred the Double Cooked Pork that Alex had. The meat was soft, with a nice amount of fat on it and the sauce was sticky and spicy.

 

Finally, I sampled a Thai curry that Phil and Raf were sharing which had a great kick to it! I think I would have found it a bit too much actually if I was eating the whole thing but the little taster I had was perfect: strong flavours and creamy texture.

 
This meal actually left me looking forward to my Chinese and Thai months of cooking and really managed to save the first impressions that weren’t too positive. At £20 pounds for half a (large) starter, a main and a beer, it’s not exactly cheap but not too bad either.
7/10

Ping’s Seafood, New York

This draft has been sitting in my posts list for a while now, well, since I came back from New York at the beginning of December. I had completely forgotten about it until today, I read this post by Cheese and Biscuits and got a huge craving for dim sum. There is one restaurant in Cambridge that does dim sum, Charlie Chan, and if anyone has visited it and can recommend it, I would love to know! For now, here you go:

This is going to be an entirely positive post, so hopefully I won’t be offending any more people! Well, unless they are particularly interested in the well-being of crustaceans.

I don’t really think I can write a blog post about New York, since so many people have been there so much more often than me and hence my experience of three days will probably be obvious and naive. Summary: New York is BIG. America is pretty big in general, but no other place I’ve ever been to has so many big things together in such little space. I think I spent my first two days looking up and being amazed at how tall the buildings were. I certainly overused “wow”.

I didn’t really think New York was particularly cheap when it comes to food, but maybe that’s because I was comparing it to Cambridge rather than London. The only meal that I really felt was a bargain was this one, where we stuffed our faces in dim sum and then paid $12 each, tip included.

China town is an experience, with all the crazy shops and the alive or dead animal displays that you come across. Certainly not a vegetarian’s dream. This place was recommended to us by a friend, which filled me with some confidence but I was still terrified when we walked in and were attacked by a trolley of food with someone shouting “Pork!” “Prawn!” over us. Yep, that was my first time in a dim sum restaurant.

I can’t remember every single thing we ordered but some of them were so nice that got re-ordered, like the pan-fried pork dumplings (top left).

This deep fried prawn inside half a green chilli pepper was really tasty, if somewhat hot. Actually, too hot for me. After the first bite, I decided (while crying) that it is wiser to remove the chilli. It was still a little bit hot without it, which was nice.

I was a big fan of the sticky rice wrapped in the lotus leaves. It had a sweet sausage filling and it was delicious. Others declared it “too sticky”. I happily finished it off.

And when I ordered the coconut jelly for dessert, everyone looked terrified. I persuaded them to try it and, after some reluctancy, the whole thing was gone in seconds. Thinking about it, maybe I should have kept it for myself.

In conclusion, brilliant. It’s just crazy that you can get so much nice food for so little money. How do they do it? Actually, I probably don’t want to know. But I need to find a dim sum restaurant close to me.

8/10