Sunday, 20 June 2010

Rebel Rebel: The Rebel Dining Society Pernod Absinthe Green Hour

I hate to admit being late to jump on the latest trend, but the whole underground / secret / pop-up dining scene completely passed me by. Now, I'm going to blame leaving East London just as every man and their culinary-inclined dog was opening up their sitting rooms. But that's just a lie. I even helped my TV researcher Bethnal Green flatmate trawl Spitalfields for people for her oh-so-on-the-moment show 'Restaurant in your Home,' and that was well before I crossed the river. I think I was rather British about it all: 'Going to someone's house you don't know to eat? Oh no, I'm not too sure about that...' But enough excuses.

So on Wednesday I was invited to a pop-up/secret/underground night hosted by The Rebel Dining Society. And guess what? It was in East London, and it wasn't even in someone's house.

The evening was called The Pernod Absinthe Green Hour. According to their website The Rebel Dining Society 'welcomes all those who are looking for a fresh and unique dining experience and our passion for food, art and music is the driving force behind our desire to push the boundaries of fine dining'. Though by Thursday it was probably more accurate to call it The Rebel Drinking Society, but that wasn't entirely their fault. It was the absinthe's. And no it's not illegal.

Choux Boy and I arrived at Hoxton Square greeted by absinthe cocktails and a mixture of Shoreditch types and some slightly lost-looking bankers. Told to drink until we would be seated at the long tressle tables in the main gallery, we followed our instructions to the letter. Absinthe is the stuff of legend and lethal strength: 68% proof and with a strong aniseed flavour it's not a shy spirit. In the spirit of research of course we tried all the cocktails - the distinctive flavour drowned the French Kiss and Mojito but the sweet Paris Citronne was a big hit. The Boy wavered between worrying about the Thursday hangover and worrying about that there wouldn't be enough drink with dinner - 'Filo what if it's like a wedding and they only budget half a bottle per head and then what if everyone else wants red too? I think we should have another cocktail just in case.' So we did.

Seated and swaying slightly, the art element of the evening (recreating Trafalgar Square - see Nelson's Column pige-fied below) was the ice breaker. A Shoreditch media couple (naturally), a freelance everything (journalist/PR/stylist), and a pair of Spanish girls who knew 'Shay' (a founding Rebels) set to work introducing themselved and cutting out their pigeons. I rapidly lost the interest of the Spaniards to the so-trendy-I-can-pull-off-a-full-on-moustache arty type next to me, and the Boy to deep concentration on his 'ravey' pigeon (bottom with the neon yellow 'string vest' on the left of the Column), so my mind turned to the food and not cutting my finger off using my safety scissors under the influence...

Four absinthe cocktails and a glass of wine down, the shot glass of green liquid fortunately wasn't absinthe based. But a tasty shot-o-soup alongside the light beany stew. The flavour and food was great but didn't make any hangover-reducing dent in the pool of absinthe in my stomach. And before my body got weaned back onto solids there was the Green Hour's take on the amuse bouche - er, absinthe. Straight. Out came towers of ice water, cut crystal glasses of vivid green absinthe and a man in a top hat and cravat. Time for the 'Absinthe Ritual'. Dripping the water through our sugar cube balance on a intricately decorated spoon, we were told of the drink's bohemian history - invented by Dr Ordinaire (Dr Ordinary, love it), Picasso and Van Gogh were fans, the creativdes' 5pm 'Green Hour' in late 19th century Paris - it's 'all about the love, the patience and the poetry of the drink'. Given that this was our fifth glass of the stuff we were easily sold.

Luckily before the Green Fairy cast her spell and I lost the ability to use my tastebuds our delicious rabbit two ways main arrived backed by The Roundhouse Experimental Choir, who were sadly almost drowned out by 120 absinthed-up diners grabbing plates and cutlery.

Somewhere between the rabbit and the two desserts I started seriously discussing getting my boobs painted in the Nevada desert (Burning Man Festival) with freelance-everything girl and I knew it was probably bus time. As the Boy and I staggered towards the 344 feeling like naughty children for being drunk and up past our bedtime on a school night, we decided we'd have to do this again. The food was delicious, the drinks not just flowing but gushing, the company interesting and four hours had passed in a blink of the green fairy's eye, plus we felt ever so slightly smug, like the rebellious cool kids had asked us to sit at their table in the lunchroom.

With The Rebel Dining Society hosting four more dinners with Pernod Absinthe and only £15 a ticket it's a bargain and an adventure - just make sure you bring some spare change for the bagel shop on the way home.

For more information see

Sunday, 13 June 2010

Steak it to him
The BBBBL (Boy's Big Boozy Birthday Lunch) - Santa Maria del Sur

Like most of the important dates in our relationship, Choux Boy's birthday revolves around eating. What are presents but mere things when I could give the him the gift of really great food? Ok, that's bollocks, treating him to a great meal is actually a rather tasty excuse for me to birthday benefit as well, after all I don't think the watch I bought him would fit my wrist too well...

So after eye-ing it up for months, I booked us a table for Sunday at Santa Maria del Sur on Queenstown Road. Even weeks before the big date they only had mid-afternoon tables left (a good sign surely?) so I plumped for 2.30pm (it was a Sunday after all, it was made for lunching) and the Boy's Big Boozy Birthday Lunch (BBBBL) was born.

Not that that was the start of his gastronomic celebration. Oh no. With a lunch so late there was plenty of time for brunch (the BLBBB - Boy's Little Boozy Birthday Brunch - if you will) Champagne, fresh orange juice and Bacon and Parsley Hotcakes (delicious, easy recipe - I added an extra slice of fried bacon to the stack under the poached egg for good measure - well it was his birthday after all - plus a bit of tabasco to give it a kick) set us up nicely.

You don't go to Santa Maria del Sur if you don't want to eat steak. The whole place revolves around the simplicity of serving really great steak. Plain wooden tables and chairs packed together and exposed brickwork do nothing to detract from the big open kitchen with a huge adjustable grill in the window. The menu is steak. There's few distractions. Starters of morcilla, chorizo, serano ham or, if you're not quite ready for the meat, grilled tuna steak. Sides of chips or salads. Variety is not the spice of Santa. But who cares, you only came for the steak anyway didn't you? The wine list, like the beef, is born and raised Argentinian. We opt for a smooth Séptimo Día - Cabernet Sauvignon 2005 - Luján de Cuyo (a choice that prompted the owner to bring us proper red wine glasses 'you need good glasses for good wine' which had the Boy's chest puff a little with his wine choosing prowess) and starters of grilled provolone cheese (which is just cheese, grilled, a lot of it) and serrano ham with palm hearts and mayo sauce. All well and good but nothing special.

It was time for the special. It was time for the steak. They range from 8oz to pound of prime Argentinian beef; rump, rib-eye, fillet or sirloin. The quest for the perfect steak has a almost cultish appeal. It's got a seductive blend of exclusivity, primal carnivorousness and sheer simplicity. It's cow, killed, grilled, on the plate. But what makes one steak great? Who knows. Is the meat, the cooking, the occasion? Well, we ticked all three. Two 8oz sirloins, medium rare.

Gorgeously charred on the outside, baby soft pink on the inside. Moist and packed with flavour. Simplicity as it should be: a handful of salad on the side, a grilled pepper on top. Fat, fluffy chips and a couple of sauces on the side: tomato and onion salsa and mustard and white wine. It didn't need it but it didn't hurt. 'I think this is the best steak I've ever eaten,' says the Boy. That's the idea. Now I knew what all the fuss was about.

Like all good things it had to come to an end and we emerged from our red mist of fine meat and juicy wine back into the Battersea sunshine. Stuffed. Well, not quite stuffed... you see up the road  from Santa Maria del Sur is another great Battersea international import: Italian Gelateria Danieli. Raspberry Ripple and the creamiest Strawberry can-you-even-call-it-sorbet ever in a proper biscuit cone was my final treat. And it wasn't even my birthday...

Santa Maria del Sur
129 Queenstown Road
020 7622 2088

Gelateria Danieli
47 Queenstown Road

Thursday, 3 June 2010

Beef it up: Mango, avocado and steak salad

Looking at me today eating, well, anything that doesn't still have a pulse, you'd never know how much of a fussy eater I once was. Bananas? No, funny texture. Apple crumble? Ew, hot fruit. Red meat? Yuck, chewy (my ten-year-old self had a bit of a thing about BSE). It caused many dinner time row and almost a whole primary school career of no lunchtime playtime as I was forced to stay behind in the dinner hall eating rice pudding grain by grain in protest until that bell rang. So fruit in a salad with red meat would have never passed my tight lipped seal of approval, but trust me it's a winner and the perfect summer combo.

I ripped Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's mango, avocado and beef salad out the Guardian Weekend back in February... the lush red, yellow and green photography almost had me stuffing the page in my mouth. Rolling it out again this week for the second time with the sun shining, it really hit its stride.

Mango, avocado and steak salad
(serves 4)

For the marinade
2 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
1tbsp oyster sauce
1tbsp dry sherry
2tsp soy sauce
1tsp light muscovado sugar
1tsp grated frsh ginger
black pepper

For the salad
350g sirloin or filllet steak
1 large, ripe mango (or if you are a cheater like me, 2/3 a pre-prepped pack)
1 large, ripe avocado
2-3 hanfuls rocket leaves
1 small bunch coriander

For the dressing
2tbsp Thai fish sauce
1tbsp sesame oil
juice 1 lime
1tbsp soy sauce
1tsp light muscovado sugar
1 small chilli, deseeded and finely chopped
1 clove of garlic, finely minced
salt and pepper

Mix all ingredients for the marinade, add steaks and rub it up and leave for 30mins to 1 hour.
Mix together the ingredients for the dressing, slice mango and avocado.
Heat a griddle pan til smoking (does anyone else hear Jim Carrey in the Mask when they see that in recipes?). Sear the steak 2-4minutes per side to taste and thickness, you can probably take it a bit rarer than usually as it make the salad more tender and light. You want it crispy, BBQ style on the outside and gorgeously pink on the inside. Leave to rest for 5 minutes while you arrange rocket, mango and avocado on plates. Top with beef, scatter with coriander and dress. Mmmmmm...

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

Eat local, live longer! (Ok I made up the last bit...)

So with Choux Boy's birthday rolling up this Sunday it means I'm thinking about one thing: no not presents, food. Brunch, cake, dinner: what is a girl to do? Well take a hint is a good start and the Boy want meat. So we're off to check out Santa Maria del Sur up the road in Battersea to gorge ourselves on red meat and red wine all afternoon... a rosy review to follow natch. But in the meantime, to whet your South London eating appetite here's a few choice bites reviewed for the lovely people at Heaver magazine... check out your delivered copy for more if you live in SW (blatant plug).

Lamberts, Balham (SW12)
A bastion for great British produce, Lamberts prides itself on the quality of its ingredients. With seasonality and sourcing top of the agenda, everything on the monthly-changing menu is British from land or sea. There’s no pretence in the understated taupe decor and that ethos applies to the expertly executed dishes as well – chunky chicken and pork terrine with homemade bread and chutneys on wooden slabs, game of the day (‘pheasant, but it’s probably the last of it’ notes owner Joe Lambert who passes on his knowledge and enthusiasm for the food as he serves tables) fresh with shot and thyme potatoes. With food this good, the midweek set menu (Tuesday to Thursday) two courses or £17, three for £20, has to be the best bargain in London.

2 Station Parade
Balham High Road
SW12 9AZ
020 8675 2233

Lola Roja, Battersea and Fulham 
(SW11 and SW6)
As close as you’ll get to modern Spanish cuisine without swapping SW for Espana, the popularity of Lola Roja’s table-packed Battersea original saw it branch out last year, opening a second restaurant over the river in Fulham. Recently named Time Out’s best Spanish restaurant, the flavours are classic (chorizo, calamari and croquettes naturally make an appearance) but created with contemporary style – chive foam with the calamari and delicately-flavoured light croquettes make way for melt-in-the-mouth suckling pig with apple puree. The wine list too is a showcase for Spanish flair inviting you to explore bottles grouped under tempting titles: ‘The zenith - elegant, refined and fabulous’ and ‘Brooding, intense and delicious – wines to linger over’. But leave room for dessert – the white chocolate soup with mango ice cream is worth a little lingering for.

Lola Roja
78 Northcote Road
SW11 6QL
020 7350 2262

140 Wandsworth Bridge Road
020 7371 8392

Four O Nine, Clapham (SW9)
Everyone loves a secret, but Four O Nine is one you’ll want to share, at least with that special someone. A buzzer marks the discreet entrance across from Clapham North tube: press and give the codeword (ok, your name) to be granted entry. A concrete stairwell and deserted roof garden lead to a candle-lit dining room, it’s no surprise that is was voted the most romantic dining room in London by a national newspaper when it opened in 2006. Food is Anglo-French fare with an inventive twist – the obligatory foie gras starter is given a tangy twist with pineapple and macadamia nut chutney, while mains are minus the usual French richness so you don’t have to feel guilty about that extra dessert cocktail from the well-stocked speak-easy style bar.

Four O Nine
409 Clapham Road
020 7737 0722