Not Very Local, Again

One of Otto Wagner's Jugenstil buildings near the NachsmarktVienna has been at the forefront of my mind over the last few weeks.

Ahead of our trip there I was occupied with finding recommendations for sights to see, arts to appreciate and walks to walk.

But, unsurprisingly perhaps, it was the food – the restaurants, cafes and markets – that I was most impatient to try.

It took a couple of days to realise there are no “pretty” areas of the city.  My father put it best when he said: “Pretty? Vienna’s not pretty.  It’s imposing, imperial.”

“But there are so few people around looking at the imposing buildings lining the sweeping streets,” I said.

“Yes,” he replied. “It’s an imperial city which has lost its reason for being.”

That makes it sound like a sad place, but once I’d heard him say it, I truly began to fall in love with it.

Not that it took me long to appreciate the food culture in Vienna.  Much like Berlin, it is acceptable to eat at any time of the day.

It’s not as in France or Italy, where if you miss lunch or breakfast, tough.  Here they accommodate every appetite.

Everywhere we ate was a highlight, but my absolute must-tries are:

:: The Mexican breakfast at the cafe at the Kunsthalle museum – served until 4pm on the weekend;

:: Naschmarkt – a Monday to Saturday food market stuffed with merchants selling cheese, ham, beautiful vegetables, ready-prepared tapas-y things, preserved fruit, pickles and olives.  There are also a string of bars interwoven with the stalls where you can eat produce from the market accompanied by your choice of tipple;

:: Cafe Sperl – the quintessential coffee house. Built in 1880, it serves by no means the best hot chocolate in Vienna, but it comes on a silver tray with an accompanying glass of tap water and there’s no chivvying along if that’s all you order during the two hours you spend there reading your way through the entire stack of international papers;

:: Palmenhaus – a brasserie in the glass palm house of the Hofburg Palace.  If you’re here for brunch have the goats cheese omelette.  And look out for the “marmelade”, a deliciously sour, runny apricot jam which bears no resemblance to the English preserve.

:: The hot dog stand by the opera house.  Thick, meaty sausages with suitably yellow mustard make a sustaining snack ahead of a performance;

:: Loos American Bar – a teeny watering hole designed by Adolf Loos in 1908 which serves a mean Negroni;

:: And last but by no means least, Alt Wiener Gastwirtschaft Schilling: possibly my favourite ever restaurant interior, which also happens to dish up a superb Wiener Schnitzel and serve an excellent bottle of Austrian red.  Absolutely heavenly.

I’ve been back over a week but I’m still thinking about Vienna.  It’s not an easy city to love at first sight.  Although it was built to make a great first impression, it really is a place which you have to get to know before you commit.

Once you begin to know it though, it’ll have you hooked.

I can’t wait to go back.

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Eat 17, Walthamstow

Service.  It’s the buzz word in the food blogosphere, thanks to Michel Roux’s new BBC programme, and it’s got me thinking too.

As much as peoples’ opinions can differ about good food, they can also differ about good service: one person’s idea of a pleasant experience is another person’s get-your-hands-out-of-my-lap-waiter nightmare.

This week, I ate out twice.  I’m not going to write about the food at Il Baretto in Marylebone because plenty of others have already done so, but it is worth noting the extraordinary service.

I arrived 10 minutes after the rest of my party and instead of being allowed to walk to the table alone, I was stopped and given an escort.

Once seated, a silent hand whisked my napkin away, folded it in half and made a game attempt at putting it on my lap.  I wasn’t quick enough to grab it before the folding but I made damn sure that waiter wasn’t getting anywhere near my lap.

Others may find this service charming, but I would rather choose how to use my napkin myself.  I may not wish to use it at all.  I may wish to keep it at the side of my plate so I can dab, ok wipe, my mouth if necessary.  Hell, I may even wish to tuck it into my collar – goodness knows I’m not the most delicate of eaters.

After the napkin incident a waitress came to fill up my water glass. I tried to order our drinks from her, but was told someone else would have to take that order.

Another person brought olives.  Another took our food order.  Another brought our food to the table, suspiciously quickly. It was a dizzying array of waiters and waitresses who, while being exceedingly efficient, exuded not an ounce of warmth between them.

The bill was placed on the side of our table without being asked for and three different people on three separate occasions came to check if we’d filled the leather folder with our cash or cards.

In the end, I felt sorry for them (New Year’s resolution – be more assertive) and we paid up and got out.

All in all it was a pretty exhausting experience.

Two days later I had an entirely, and blessedly, different encounter with restaurant service.

We arrived at 12.30 on Saturday afternoon at bar and restaurant Eat 17 on Orford Road in Walthamstow.

The busy, but very courteous, host at this popular-with-local-families eatery told us we would have to wait 15 minutes or so and suggested we sit in the bar area and have a drink while we waited.

15 minutes turned to 30 but as half our party was running very late and there was a stack of brilliant magazines at the bar, we weren’t put out at all.

When a table became free but our friends still hadn’t arrived the host suggested we take the table anyway, to avoid passing it onto another group.

The stragglers actually turned up about 5 minutes after we’d sat down so it wasn’t a problem, but the way the host handled the situation was perfect.

When one of our group wanted to know if she could have smoked salmon with scrambled eggs, even though the menu said the restaurant stopped serving breakfast at 12.30, the waitress didn’t hesitate to go to the kitchen to check.

Yes, that wouldn’t be a problem.

And the rest of the service was fantastic too.  Friendly, attentive, efficient.

As for the food, it was great.  Main course, starter and “tidbit” options were so appealing I could eat happily eat there for 10 days straight.

Steak and ale pie, cooked and served in an enamel blue and white dish with Colman’s mustard mash was meaty and rich and the pastry flaked nicely.

Smoked salmon and scrambled eggs were good to look at and good to eat.

Barbary duck breast wasn’t quite pink enough for me and the red cabbage was a little too sweet but the meat was very tasty and the dauphinoise served alongside had just the right amount of creaminess.

Eat 17 is a member of the Sustainable Restaurant Association, the meat comes from the East London Sausage Company, a butcher across the road, and they try to buy fruit and veg from local suppliers.

The most expensive main course was a rib eye steak at £15.65, and the rest range between £10 and £13.

All in all this place comes highly recommended.

On food alone it’s worth a return visit, but it’s the service that makes it a must. Next time I’m in the area I’ll be back to try the crispy fishcake, parsley & pickle salad with smoked paprika aioli and the toad in the hole.

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La Rugoletta, East Finchley

Olive oil and garlic are the predominant flavours of the food at La Rugoletta, and that’s no bad thing.

The right sort of oil is used in the right place: a lighter one for the fried wild mushrooms, a more robust, fruity sort on the lentils.

Fresh garlic scented the bruschetta and an earthier drier note surfaced in the spag bol.

La Rugoletta is just the sort of place I started this blog to showcase.

In an area of undistinguished eateries, it sits unobtrusively on a residential street churning out tasty dishes, most of which err on the cheaper side of £13.

There’s no licence which means you can match your plate of excellent, home made, pasta with an equally excellent bottle of wine without giving yourself a fright.

Service is sweet – they righted our wobbly table before we’d even noticed a problem – and the locals love it.

As well as pasta, pizza and the usual fare, it does a good line in Italian meat dishes.

I’ve had the best calves liver of my life there – perfectly cooked with sage, plus plenty of lemon to squeeze over – so good in fact that when I saw pigs trotter on the menu this time, I decided to give the cut a second chance.

(I had a bad experience at the otherwise superb Gourmet San in Bethnal Green a couple of years ago.)

I’ve since discovered that cotechino – often eaten at New Year – is not made of pigs trotter, but of pork, back fat and rind, though there is a dish – zampone – which fills a trotter with the same mix.

Still, it was salty, hammy and deliciously rich and the accompanying lentils were soaked through with the same flavour.

Spinach sauteed with garlic was a great accompaniment – the only change I would make would be to add a wedge of lemon to be squeeze over it all to help temper the fattiness.

But really the only bum note La Rugoletta hits is dessert.

I’ve never had it here, but am put off every time by the corporate-style menu, the likes of which can be found in restaurants across in Italy.

I’m not a huge fan of Italian puddings anyway, but the thought of defrosted Pastiera Napoletana is not an appetising one.

Desserts and my own ignorance of the finer points of Italian cuisine aside, this is a great, local restaurant that is packed night after night with people who live in the area.

I’m not East Finchley’s biggest fan, but I am a little jealous of the residents who have this superb place just round the corner.

La Rugoletta, 59 Church Lane, N2 8DR, 020 8815 1743

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Noel et le Nouvel An

I’ve been in the South of France for the last couple of weeks eating lots of food which, even by my lax definition, cannot be described as local to London and its surrounds.

Still – it’s where I’ve been imbibing my meals in recent days and I do have some observations to offer…

Bread in France is a problem.

It’s rarely good, mostly ok and occasionally inedible.

It’s hard to find a boulangerie which makes the bread from scratch on site.

Industrial baguettes are winning the bread basket battle in most restaurants, and even if the bread is good, it’s likely to have been sliced a good half-hour before it’s brought to the table.

Milk is another problem.

For a country so proud of its dairy, it’s odd it is so hard to buy fresh milk in France.

The French are hugely attached to their unpasturised cheeses, yet most insist on drinking UHT milk which has been zapped until its taste has been obliterated.

Even at the Belles Rives, a four star-plus hotel perching at the edge of Cap d’Antibes, the (7 euro) “chocolat maison” was made with the longlife stuff.

With the demise of the cremeries, the only place to get fresh milk nowadays is the supermarket.

(I should add, however, that the wonderful Ceneri cheese shop in Cannes does actually stock raw, unpasturised milk.)

Another shocker on our visit was the mayonnaise.

At Jazz Plage in Juan les Pins there was good bread to go with our moules mariniere and chips, but the onions were most definitely not finely chopped, the frites were sad and saggy, and the mayo tasted of dusty vinegar and came from a packet.

Still, it’s not every day you can sit in blazing sunshine on the beach without your coat on in January.

Now, enough of the bah humbug, and onto the good stuff.

Three tried and tested places which rarely disappoint…

La Bastide de St Antoine in Grasse on Boxing Day: lobster in a mushroom broth, perfectly seared foie gras and truffled “ravioli” of Comte, stuffed with Cabecou et Gorgonzola were the highlights of what was an extraordinary, though admittedly crazily priced, lunch.

The chef at La Petite Maison in Nice turned out a perfect aioli, coaxing the best out of each ingredient. Cod, potato, cauliflower, broccoli and carrot were elevated to star status by way of a gentle steaming and judicious seasoning. Mustardy garlic mayonnaise completed the transformation of the simple components.

But best of all was New Year’s Eve in Vence at Christophe Dufau’s Les Bacchanales, a family favourite.

Homemade potato bread, zingy parsley pesto, foie gras poached in a liqorice broth, chocolate truffles with a cocoa bean lolly pop…this is food imbued with Dufau’s enthusiasm and lively personality.

Plus – and here’s the best bit – he LOVES using local and regional ingredients:  The truffles come from the surrounding hills; fish is caught in nearby rivers or on the Cote d’Azur; his smoking goats cheese is made less than five miles away and he filters his own water.

Les Baccanales has been given a star by the Michelin, but this restaurant doesn’t feel like a member of the establishment.

Food is served by the kitchen staff, the sommelier will lean in for a kiss once you’ve been there a few times, there’s a communal-style summer lunch menu and Dufau still hasn’t figured out what to put in the back garden, months after his wild flowers died.

So if you’re in the south of France and want to get away from bad bread, UHT milk and overcooked seafood head to the hills of Vence.

Pay your respects to Matisse at his Chapelle du Rosaire (Dufau has a tiled mural tribute to the artist in his kitchen), then walk a couple of hundreds of yards down the road and settle into Les Baccanales for an enchanting couple of hours.

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Blue Ocean Fish And Chip Shop

To Ealing, where I was promised sourdough better than Poilane and a fish and chip shop which smells like fish and chip shops used to.

Well one out of two ain’t bad.

To be fair, it’s not the Pitshanger Village Bakery’s fault they’d run out of bread. We didn’t get there until 3:30 and the very next day our local bakery was running similarly low on stock at around the same time.

But back to those fish and chips…

Blue Ocean can stand proudly on a surprisingly foodie street which includes the aforementioned bakery, a good looking fishmonger and butcher and a wine shop which sells excellent cheese (we bought half a baby Colston Bassett Stilton for a very reasonable £21).

Cod and haddock were cooked to order – the haddock flaked perfectly beneath my fork, though its flavour was no match for the meaty cod.

Batter was well seasoned, crisp without, slightly mushy within – reminding me of the fish fingers which were my favourite supper as a child.

Talking of mushy, the peas were bog standard – bright green and starchy with a hint of pea-y sweetness.

Chips were cut square and stocky from tasty potatoes, though not quite crispy enough for this eater.

Tartare sauce was from a packet and vinegar was represented by ‘fish and chip shop taste’ but while this would jar in some eateries, it’s perfectly acceptable, even desirable, here.

Service was sweet and swift and they had Diet Coke in real glass bottles.

Blue Ocean and the bakery were recommended to me by someone who lives locally and is one of the most enthusiastic and knowledgeable people about food I have ever met.

I was surprised to hear he lived in this area, but having experienced some of the delights of Pitshanger Lane, I understand why now.

Thanks for the suggestions Pete, I’ll be back to try the bread soon.

Blue Ocean Fish and Chip Shop, 151 Pitshanger Lane, London W5 1RH, 020 8997 7438

Tip: They stop serving between 2:30pm and 4:30pm.

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The Kings Arms

The Kings Arms exteriorThere is often a struggle at Christmas time between those who love the festive season and those who’d rather avoid it altogether.

This can make finding somewhere to eat and/or drink difficult.

One half of a couple may be happy to go to somewhere festooned with holly and eat turkey as Frank Sinatra croons Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas, while the other half craves the exact opposite: a refuge from forced jollity where they serve a decent pint and a good meal with no hint of cloves or cranberries.

Reconciling these requirements is a challenge, but there is one pub where a pair such as this may be satisfied.

Hidden down a residential street a few minutes walk from Waterloo is the Kings Arms.

Go at this time of the year and you will be greeted with a subtle smattering of Christmas lights and foliage, a solid selection of real ales on draft and two roaring open fires.

A pint and a half of Forty Niner at the Kings Arms

There are two rooms at the front of the pub, which share the bar.  One has all the windows and is the choicest place to sit when the sun’s out, the other has a roomy booth next to the bar right opposite one of the previously mentioned fires – a perfect reward for thirsty people who’ve slid their way along Roupell Street’s icy pavement to get there.

At the back is a large conservatory with communal tables which, though more modern than the rest of the pub, complements, rather than detracts from the atmosphere.  The second of the fires is here at the back.

This a cheery, cosy pub, full of people who live and work in the area and have been coming here for years.

It’s Christmassy but not gaudy and has a most welcoming feel.

I wouldn’t eat here – the Thai food/pub combination is a turn-off for me  – but if you’re searching for a warm place to have a pint (Ringwood Brewery’s Forty Niner was drinking nicely last time we were there) or a glass of wine in comfortable surroundings, give the Kings Arms a whirl.

The Kings Arms, 25 Roupell Street, SE1 8TB, 020 7207 0784

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Camden Coffee Shop

Camden Coffee ShopI am a tea person.  I agree with William Cowper. It is “the cup that cheers but does not inebriate”.

However, I am a sucker for a local product. OK, coffee isn’t native to Camden, but the owner of its eponymous coffee shop roasts and grinds the beans on site.

The Camden Coffee Shop was started on Delancey Street in 1950 and George has been running the place since 1978.

Set aside 20 minutes, if you can, to enjoy the experience of watching him put the green beans in the roaster, light it up and set it rolling.

Sooner than you’d think, chocolate brown beans are poured into a metal pan to cool, before being sold whole, or ground to suit the customer’s preferred coffee machine.

Shop sign, beans, roaster, sacks of coffee

The Uno roaster is the only working one of its type, George says, and is believed to be between 85 and 90 years old.

The previous owner bought it second hand.

George took over the shop when he decided he’d had enough of engineering and wanted to own his own business.

The then owner was suffering from asthma and couldn’t work in the shop any more.

Different types of coffee

Neither of his sons were suitable – one was an excellent coffee roaster but didn’t want the responsibility of running a business.  The other was a coffee broker, but couldn’t roast for toffee.

Cue George…The owner gave him a two week trial and promised him he could take over if he could roast and grind coffee to his own high standards.

And he could.

It transpired, at a later date, that the previous owner was a distant relative and came from the same village as George’s grandfather.

George

Meant to be?  I’ve no idea, but I do know that when I fancy a cup of coffee it’s the Camden Coffee Shop’s Kenya AA Estate that I want in my percolator.

Rich, fruity and with very little bitterness, it’s a tea drinker’s sort of brew.

Tip: The signs on the different types of coffee suggest you can buy 125g bags, but actually they start at 250g.

Camden Coffee Shop, 11 Delancey Street, NW1 7NL, 020 7387 4080

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