Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Good Eats at Brixton Village

Brixton Village has been all the buzz amongst the foodie circles lately. Both Time Out London and The Guardian have both wrote excellent reviews about this little foodie paradise in Southwest London. Keenan and I have been to Brixton a number of times -- concerts at the Brixton Academy, Saturday lunches at Franco Manca, which we think is the best pizza outside of Naples, and the occasional run to our closest Argos (think: Montgomery Wards catalogue order) for all our miscellaneous household items. 

As I mentioned before, and I'll say it again, while Brixton is a colourful neighbourhood, it can be down right seedy especially at night. I seriously thought I was going to have my first-ever mugging experience as I walked up Brixton Hill to meet friends for dinner on a cold February evening. However in recent years, Brixton have gone through a series of gentrification starting with the renovation of Ritzy Cinema on the corner of Coldharbour Lane and recently transforming the once-neglected Granville Arcade, now called Brixton Village, into a bustling foodie market.


Setting the trend was Franco Manca who opened his first outpost in a tiny space in Brixton Market Row in 2008, and now has branches in Chiswick and Westfield Stratford. Several restaurants have popped up in Market Row since including Casa Morito, a Mexican taco bar that sells tomatillos, very exciting as  I can never find them in London except at Borough Market. Like Market Row, Brixton Village is a covered arcade with a mix of butchers, fishmongers, ethnic grocers, vintage shops, and a tiny restaurants with no more than 15-20 seats each. Walking through Brixton Village is a feast for the eyes and nose. We were overwhelmed with the variety of cuisines to choose from with no less than twenty restaurants and cafes packed in a square block. 

There's Mama Lan, a Beijing dumpling and noodle specialty shop; Elephant, which serves up samosa and curries thali-style for knock-out low price of £6; Okan, a Japanese okonomiyaki shop; French & Grace, whips up some lovely crepes; Bellantoni's for home-made pastas; two Colombian restaurants, El Rancho de Lalo and Restaurante Santafereno, both who source their meats from Carniceria Los  Andes butchers; much-loved Clapham brunch place Breads Etcetera with their tabletop signature Dualit toasters and blankets; and Brixton Village Grill for Portuguese-style piri-piri chicken. 

After an unsuccessful attempt (60 minute wait time!) to grab a table at Honest Burger, supposedly the best burger joint in town thanks to their 35-day aged patties served on sourdough buns, Keenan and I snagged an outdoor table at the family-run KaoSarn for delicious Thai food. We devour our dishes - a Thai noodle soup for me and grilled beef over rice for Keenan, both had the perfect blend of chili sauce, tamarind, and basil. Next door to KaoSarn was Take Two Grill, a jerk chicken joint grilling up meats in a kettle drum. It smelled so good that we were tempted to order takeaway for dinner but alas we already had dinner plans. 

Caffeine-addicts should not miss Coffee Federation for the flat whites, while those looking to satisfy the sweet tooth have plenty to choose from - Lab G for gelato, WAG Free for gluten-free pastries, or Cornercopia for Brockwell Park damson jam. It's also a great place to people watch if you can find a seat, and to buy some kitchen staples like herbs, onion, and garlic.

I hope this post is making you hungry. If so head over to Brixton Village to support the local Brixton economy. The market is open late on Thursdays and Fridays with live entertainment and repertoire of international cuisine to satisfy any appetite, all for probably under a tenner. I'm sure I'll be back to Brixton Village in no time given it is only a five minute bus ride from Clapham Common. And next time, I will get my hands on that The Federation from Honest Burger. 

Friday, November 25, 2011

A Very Happy Thanksgiving!

In my early university days I dabbled in the kitchen as my "productive" form of procrastination from studying for my economics exams, while my college roommate would find any excuse not to write her English essays, that usually meant cleaning the flat. So between the two us, we not only had the cleanest apartment on the block, but also a refrigerator full of botched recipes of everything imaginable. I was terrible in the kitchen back then. In fact, I nearly set our university apartment on fire.


However, over the years my culinary skills vastly improved, thanks to my perpetual need to procrastinate. So much to my delight that I even splurged on a 10-piece All-Clad set with my first paycheck and convinced my family to let me cook my first Thanksgiving dinner in 2004. A bit apprehensive initially, but they were happy that I found a new hobby, although I am fairly certain my older sister had a back-up plan to make a last minute run to Boston Market (equivalent to a Nando's) in case of a disaster. Thanksgiving dinner was a major success! Since then I've cooked every Thanksgiving dinner for my family until Keenan and I moved abroad. 


It's no exaggeration that I look forward to cooking the Thanksgiving meal more than actually eating turkey, mash, and all the trimmings. This year was no exception. After weeding through epicurious.com for hours, I picked a menu of  Italian-inspired recipes for this year's Thanksgiving dinner.


Pancetta-Sage Thanksgiving Turkey: As last year's turkey was a bit on the dry side, I tried a new technique this year by smothering the turkey with a butter mixture of pancetta, sage, rosemary, and shallots (don't ask how much butter!), tucking the butter beneath the skin and generously seasoning the cavity and body of the turkey with salt and pepper. To add another layer of fat, I covered the turkey breast with bacon, followed by a generous olive oil rub. I then placed foil on top of the breast for the first 40 minutes to prevent the breast from cooking too quickly and drying out the breast. I diligently basked the turkey every 15 to 20 minutes and brushed the turkey with melted butter with 30 - 40 minutes. The result? By far, the best turkey I have roasted to date. The turkey breast was moist and packed with flavours of sage and the perfect amount of saltiness from the bacon.
Italian-sausage Bread Stuffing: I normally make a vegetarian stuffing but this year I changed it up a bit since we didn't have any vegetarian guests at dinner. I always make stuffing from scratch, toasting my own baguette instead of using store-bought packages. While the French baguette was toasting in the oven, I browned the pork sausage and placed in a large mixing bowl. Then using the same pan, I sauteed the onion, celery, and garlic seasoning it with salt and pepper. Then it was time to mix -- some heavy cream, eggs, and chicken broth, more salt and pepper, and into the oven it goes for 45 minutes or so. If you like the top to be slightly toasted, remove the foil after 30 minutes. Very tasty.

Green Beans with Pine Nuts and Lemon Zest: The easiest recipe ever. Blanched the green beans and soaked it in a cold water bath to retain the crispiness. Then I drizzled the green beans with lemon zest, toasted pine nuts, olive oil, and salt and pepper. That's it -- easy. The toasted pine nuts added a nice texture and flavour to this easy and elegant dish.

Brussels Sprout with White Bean and Pecorino: I have never been a fan of brussels sprouts but always have this veggie as a must on the Thanksgiving menu. Each year I try to mix up the recipes, last year with a brussel sprout-cauliflower gratin, and the year before, steamed brussel sprouts with bacon. This year, I added white bean to the brussels sprouts and some Italian percorino to round out the flavour.  My favorite brussels sprout recipe so far, liked the beans more so than the brussels sprouts.

Mashed Potato with Gravy: As long as you don't skim on the fat i.e. butter and milk, you can't really make a bad mashed potato. Keenan made the mashed potato and I saw how much fat went into that pot! You really don't want to know... The result: silky, creamy, and oh-so addicting mash. He also carved the turkey. Check out his Movember mustache...makes him look six years older.

Tiramisu: One of my friends made a delicious tiramisu for dessert. The luscious espresso-infused sponge cake was layered with delectable mascarpone and topped with cocoa powder. The secret: Baily's Irish Cream. It was amazing!

My Thanksgiving Plate paired with an excellent Barolo for the perfect Italian-themed Thanksgiving. The best part, besides spending the evening with Keenan and friends, was watching classic American football on Thanksgiving day. We watched the Detroit Lions vs. Green Bay Packers game live via the NFL GamePass, but couldn't stay up for the San Francisco 49ers vs. Baltimore Raven Game (aka Jim Harbaugh vs. John Harbaugh) as we fell into a tryptophan-induced sleep.


I hope you all had a wonderful Thanksgiving with your loved ones! Be thankful every day for life's many blessings. I was telling my older sister in Hong Kong that it is holidays like this one that I wish we didn't live on three different continents. Keenan and I are incredibly thankful for friends and family on both sides of the pond. 

Happy Thanksgiving to you all!

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Sorrento and the Amalfi Coast

In all my visits to Italy, I have never spent much time exploring the coastal gems of Italy: Cinque Terre, the Amalfi Coast or the Italian islands of Sardinia or Sicily. That is, of course, until last week when we went for a short getaway to the beautiful Amalfi Coast. 

We based ourselves in the cute little town of Sorrento and made ourselves comfortably at home at the Magi House, a lovely B&B/apartment wonderfully located in Sorrento's historic quarters, just a stone's throw away from the seafront promenade. We stayed in the "Mediterranea" flat at Magi House, a comfortable ultra-modern loft apartment decked out in white decor, even the frame of the "tellie" was white with a splash of pink and purple. The flat had an open floor plan with the living room bleeding into the efficient kitchenette, and a spacious granite-clad bathroom. Upstairs was the bedroom with a California king bed featuring glass floors and a view of the living room. The decor was on the feminine side, but we very much enjoyed the Magi House, thanks to the gracious and helpful reception staff and convenient location.

As it was mid-November, Sorrento wasn't terribly busy, which was great as we really got to enjoy this lovely town without fighting the hordes of tourist. We loved strolling through the alleyways, browsing through little shops selling nativity scenes, limoncello liqueur, and local crafts. While the weather was mild, it wasn't quite beach weather either so we spent most of the sunny days sitting in cafes or  exploring hilltop towns along the coast.


On Saturday, we took a spectacular drive along the narrow and windy road up to Ravello, a ritzy jet-setting resort town perched between Valley del Dragone and Valley della Regina with spectacular views of the rugged coast. Both Villa Rufolo and Villa Cimbrone are worth a visit if only for the amazing views and gorgeous gardens.


Back on the twisting, switch-back roads, we drove through the town of Amalfi and then to Positano, another picturesque resort town built on the slopes of the hill. It had a more sophisticated feel than Sorrento with elegant boutiques, upscale hotels, and beautiful pastel-washed homes overlooking the sea. Down below, the beaches were near empty and all we saw was a large blanket of black-sanded beach and the endless blue sea. If it was summer, you may just find me on one of those orange-clad lounge chairs on the beach and I may never leave, but alas it was starting to get chilly as the sun was starting to set. It was time to head back to Sorrento.


The drive along the Amalfi Coast was probably one of the scenic and rewarding drives, ranking high up with the drives along Chapman's Peak in South Africa and Highway 1 in San Francisco. I am a sucker for views and this one certainly did not disappoint. 

If we weren't taking in the panoramic view of the Amalfi Coast, then we were certainly indulging ourselves in local cuisine. We had several enjoyable meals, my favorite being the Inn Bufalito in Sorrento, a fun and lively mozzarella bar and taverna serving up traditional Neapolitan dishes with a modern touch.

Its speciality is buffalo and bufala cheese in all forms. We started off with mozzerella di bufala with a drizzle of Campania olive oil and fresh baby cherry tomato, which was the best mozzarella I have ever tasted, followed by a buffalo ragu pasta with bufala ricotta, a hearty and tasty dish that paired well with local red wine. At this point, I was so stuffed I wasn't sure if I could polish off my main course of mussels sauteed in white wine and herbs. Keenan somehow found a third stomach and devoured his third and final buffalo dish, a stew this time. The crowd was young, the staff was energetic, and food was delicious -- all for 60 euros including tip.  Overall a great evening.


We also went to Ristorante La Basilica in Sorrento, which had a more formal, old world feel than Inn Bufalito and the cooking was more traditional. We both ordered the veal, which was nothing special. The wine list here was huge, some 30 plus pages of wine from Italy and beyond, and a lot pricey than other restaurants in the area. Complimentary bread basket and a limoncello (they love lemons in Sorrento) as an digestif.

While in Ravello, we had lunch at Cumpa' Cosimo, a family-run restaurant popular with locals serving homemade Sorrentine dishes. I had a regional speciality of gnocchi alla sorrentina, a gnocchi with a smoky bacon tomato-based sauce topped with mozzerella cheese, and Keenan had the vegetarian ravioli. Generous portions, pleasant owners, and no views of the coast, but good value. 

The weekend was too short, as they always are.  We wished we could stay for another night, but alas we had to head back to London. The Amalfi Coast is such a beautiful corner of Italy. The geography, terrain, and ruggedness is unbelievable and pictures don't do it justice. I look forward to future visits to Cinque Terre and Piedmont, home of the famous truffle festival and the Barolo wines.  Until we meet again. I will keep the amazing scenery in my mind...


Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Pizza Pilgrimage to Naples, Italy

Most people bypass Naples in favor for the dramatic views and chic seaside resorts on the Amalfi Coast, and for good reasons: the Amalfi Coast is simply jaw-dropping gorgeous. But for the food lover, Naples is worth a stop-over if only for the famous pizzas  as well as the delicious Mozzarella di Bufala Campana, fresh seafood, and tomato-based pastas. Keenan adores pizza and if it were up to him, he could eat pizza and pasta every day for the rest of his life. For him, going to Naples was one-part business trip and one-part pilgrimage to the birthplace of pizza.

Naples is gritty, sprawling, and chaotic with maddening bumper-to-bumper traffic. It's not the most picturesque Italian city but still retains its down-at-heel charm with Baroque churches and rustic trattorias jammed into the historic UNESCO-protected Centro Storico.  We had a car during our time in Naples and the Amalfi Coast, probably not the best idea as driving in Naples takes skills and patience, but Keenan needed a car to get to his business meeting, plus we planned on taking a driving tour along the coast. I am surprised that we returned the car without any scratches and with the bumper and rims still intact. There are also several museums worth visiting such as the Museo Archeologico Nazionale and Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte, but unfortunately spent most of our time sitting in traffic that we had to cut museum time out of the itinerary.

Once out of the car, we spent the afternoon stretching our legs and meandering around the narrow streets in the historic centre and eventually found our way to Sorbillo Pizzeria, a Neapolitan institution along with Da Michelle and Di Matteo. Located on Via dei Tribunali, where scenes from "Eat Pray Love" were filmed, the pizzas at Sorbillo were delicious and great value with most pizzas priced at €6.00. Fresh from the wood-fired brick oven, the pizza dough at Sorbillo was perfectly fluffy with the right amount of char, drizzled with home-made tomato sauce, mushroom, mozzarella, and prosciutto. Ummmm...pizza.

Needing to burn off the carb-dense lunch, we took a leisurely walk in the fashionable district of Chiaia along the Bay of Naples to Castel dell'Ovo for panoramic views of Naples and the Sorrentine Peninsula. Here Mt. Vesuvius, the famous stratovolcano responsible for the destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum in 79 AD, dominates the landscape. The weather was incredibly mild for mid-November, a perfect 21C/70F.

From here we drove up to Vomero, a pleasant leafy hilltop neighbourhood fringed with little cafes, gelato shops, restaurants, and shops around Piazza Vanvitelli and a pedestrianised shopping area filled with all the popular high street brands such as Zara, United Colors of Benetton, H&M, and the ubiquitous Coin department store. 

For dinner, we went to a home-style osteria called Donna Teresa, which was recommended by Keenan's colleague who grew up outside of Naples. Family-run and operated, the cooking was simple but tasty and excellent value -- it's like having dinner at your aunt's house. There is no menu and the choice is limited depending on the daily special. We each ordered the tomato-based pasta with ragu as our starters, and for the mains, I had the lightly fried fish, and Keenan had the jumbo meatball in tomato sauce, all washed down with local Campania red wine and an amaretto-infused sponge cake for dessert.  The total bill was €30 for two starters, two mains, one dessert, half litre of house red wine, and tip.

We spent the rest of the weekend in Sorrento (more on that later) and the Amalfi Coast but had the opportunity to walk the rim of Mt. Vesuvius on our way back to the airport on Sunday. If you plan on visiting Mt. Vesuvisu, ignore your GPS system no matter what she tells you, and remember to take the exit from Torre del Greco, if coming from Sorrentine Penninsula, for the road up 1,281m to Mt. Vesuvius. Once on top, you'll have to pay the €8 admission fee to walk the crater. 

Having never visited an active volcano before, it was quite interesting and the views are incredible, even the autumn foliage was feast to the eyes. If you expect to see flowing lava, you'll be sorely disappointed, you may smell sulphur and see some steam but that's it. It's mind-blowing to know that there are some 3 million people living in the vicinity of Mt. Vesuvius; what if she erupts? If we had an extra day we would have loved to visit the Roman towns Pompeii, which I hear is expansive and takes a better part of a day, and Herculaneum, and the nearby Greek temple of Paestum. 

The Campania region is filled with fascinating history spanning several millennias and one stunning coastline, definitely worthy of a visit beyond a long weekend. Next up: Sorrento and the Amalfi Coast.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

The Other Financial Centre: Canary Wharf

Last week on my way back from a meeting in East London, I stopped by Canary Wharf to have lunch with Keenan at my favorite burger joint in London, Byron Burger. Since I have been remiss about writing on London neighbourhoods as of late, I thought I share a post about Canary Wharf, otherwise known as the other financial centre in London alongside the City. Headquarter to some of the world’s largest banks including HSBC and Barclays, it is said that some 100,000 people commute into Canary Wharf each day, and that would also include Keenan. If you are Facebook friends with Keenan, then you most likely have heard him complain at some point about the Jubilee Line, which always manage to have a “signal failure” or a “man on the tracks” at the most inconvenient time. Oh, the love/hate relationship with the Tube…
Alighting at the Canary Wharf underground station, I am greeted by the ticker sign of Thomas Reuters and a dozen or so gleaming modern skyscrapers, most bearing the names of major financial institutions – State Street, Citibank, Northern Trust, and the former Lehman Brothers-now Nomura-and soon to be J.P. Morgan building. Sometimes I forget that I am in London when I am in Canary Wharf as if I was transplanted to some American city. While you won’t find any elegant Victorian architecture in this corner of London, however what you will find is an underground mall (yes, underground) with all your favorite high-street retailers -- Reiss, Karen Millen, Ted Baker, LK Bennett, among others. For all the husbands and boyfriends with deep pockets looking for the perfect gift for the wife/girlfriend, take note: there is a Tiffany & Co in Chabot Place.

The dining scene in Canary Wharf has evolved significantly over the past few years. Jamie’s Italian, Roka, and Gaucho have all opened branches here. Other noteworthy restaurants in the area include the award-winning gastropub, The Gun, newcomer pan-Asian restaurant, Sri Nam, and the long awaited Obika Mozzerella Bar due to open in late November. For those looking for a more casual lunch spot, there is also your high street chains: Itsu, Nandos, Pizza Express, EAT, and Pret a Manger. If you need to stretch your legs or get a bit of fresh air, you can stroll around the Docklands or walk through Jubilee Park., or simply go window-shopping and let your credit card do the work. If you make the trek all the way out to Canary Wharf, I also highly recommend heading to Greenwich, which is just a few stops south on the DLR to visit the National Maritime Museum and the Royal Observatory. And if you are a serious seafood lover, arrive here at the wee hours (5am to 8:30am) Tuesday to Saturday for the famous Billingates Market for some fresh supply of seafood, otherwise, avoid heading towards Canary Wharf during rush hour.  
By the way, it’s Movember month and Keenan has promised to grow a moustache to raise funds and awareness for men’s health, specifically prostate cancer and other cancers that affect men. I will be posting photos soon, but what kind of moustache will it be? Stay tuned!