French meets Japan supper club at Mirey’s Restaurant

My friends Gerry and Ko have set up a popup restaurant in south London, showcasing their creative talent and delicious food.


The event took place in the London Cooking Project, a community-run culinary initiative in Battersea aimed at fostering budding catering talent in the area.


We signed up and were provided with this tantalising menu.


During a fairly manic pre-Christmas week it was lovely to get a chance to relax and enjoy someone else’s cooking – especially given its sophistication. What a treat!


On arrival guests were provided with a glass of French cider blended with a fruit syrup.


Otherwise it was BYOB, although Ko and Gerry brought back a case of sake from a recent trip to Japan and I was highly intent on trying some. 


I chose a dry sake from Hokkaido (where Ko comes from) which went very well with our first course: generously sliced tuna carpaccio with a tongue-tingling garnish of shredded daikon, green apple and fragrant herbs spices. It wasn’t just diverse in terms of its flavours; the inclusion of shiso leaves (perilla) and pink peppercorns turned it into a full-mouth sensation.


Next came a delicious steak tartare, with croutons, edamame, spicy sauce and a raw quail’s egg among other things.


Delicious and light, it was a real treat of contrasting textures, including the croutons which were served inside the tartare.


Next came a delicious lamb dish. Encrusted in pistachio nuts, the cutlets were sat on a bed of aubergine in spicy miso sauce.


A truly international dish, the lime really enhanced and united all of the flavours.


The aubergines were also particularly spicy which I loved.

For dessert we were presented with a trio of sweets. From the left to the right we had a yuzu cheesecake biscuit which was light and refreshing, followed by a matcha green tea Yule log, then sweet adzuki beans with a sweet sake jelly.


The latter was my favourite, with its surprising, light textures.


The atmosphere was also really fun – relaxed and friendly, I made several new friends from Europe and Japan.


I’m very pleased to report that Ko and Gerry will be resident at the Cuckoo pub in Islington from the new year so be sure to check out their food and stay up to date with their work here!

The Mermaid Inn, NYC 4.5/5

This is one of my favourite places in the world.

Oyster happy hour is a must! 

I’ve previously mentioned how well seafood goes with a martini, especially the simplistically delicate oyster, so a bar/restaurant that specialises in briny goodness was always going to get me excited.

 

However, I’ve got to focus on the martini and not get too ahead of myself.

Using my martini rating scale I award this bar and restaurant very high points: 4.5 out of 5.


I ordered a hot and dirty martini (vodka, olive brine, Tabasco sauce with a crunchy, fresh and bright red peppadew garnish). It was ice cold, salty and fiery – a perfect tongue-tantalising aperitif.


The service was fast, attentive and the staff were passionate about the food and drinks.

The setting was intimate, clean and unpretentious.


And finally, the food is fantastic with a wide variety of seasonal oysters as well as a range of sustainably sourced seafood. It’s ideal for a light bite or a more substantial meal.


The only thing I would recommend to the Mermaid Inn is that the management make more of their martinis on the menu. The restaurant does them so well I think they should promote them more prominently. I really can’t fault them in any other way.


Basically to sum up my experience, If I died suddenly and my life flashed before my eyes I hope I would linger here for just a little while en route to the next level. And I hope the next level has oyster happy hour too.

 

Don’t forget to download their useful app Oysterpedia

The Foxlow in Balham 4/5

  

My friend invited me out to lunch at the Foxlow Restaurant just around the corner from Balham tube station in south London.
 

The decor has a 1970s Scandinavian feel to it, with lots of wood and chunky fixtures that say practicality as well as style. The staff were also helpful, friendly and knowledgable. 

  

The food menu is unpretentious comfort food – but of very high quality. The chicken sandwich was generous, tasty, comforting and a real treat of contrasting textures. All the meat and fish is carefully chosen from high value and sustainable sources by the way.

  

I don’t normally drink martinis at lunch but when I saw the unusual option at the top of their cocktail menu I had to try it. I was told it involved a honey and Manzanilla olive brine mixture instead of vermouth. If in doubt, I almost always prefer a traditional classic but this sounded like a very individual, striking yet simple variation that I had never seen before so it would have been rude not to order one.

  
I was not disappointed. The oily circle of honey oozed playfully around the surface of the drink until the end while the sweet and briny flavours swirled pleasingly over the stoicism of the dry gin.

If I could recommend any changes I would suggest, as I often do, keeping the gin and glasses in the freezer so that the drink was even colder. I also prefer to drink martinis from a V-shaped martini glass rather than a coupe glass, but these are minor points.

The drink was good value for money for London and I particularly salute the creativity of someone who can take a tried and tested classic, innovate it with a subtle but unique alteration and create something new and pleasing, yet also reassuringly rooted in the classic martini recipe  style.

  
The drink was not served with nibbles (perhaps it could be served with complimentary Manzanilla olives for martini greatness) but the nibbles on offer in the food menu were creative and highly tasty.

We ordered the anchovy, onion and goats cheese served on rounds of crisp bread. They were absolutely delicious, with strong salty and umami punch, finished off with the pungency of the onion.
  
They were a fantastic accompaniment to the martini, although given their strong flavour I would recommend only eating them with someone you are comfortable enough to share anchovy-onion breath with afterwards. If you’re on a date you’d better buy two plates to share – your breaths will hopefully cancel one another’s out if you end  up kissing later – and if you have one or two martinis let’s be honest, there will probably be a fairly good chance of it.

The Fiery Ginger Martini

   
Serving a cocktail in a martini glass and adding a -tini suffix to the end of its name does not make it a martini.

   
A real martini should contain a small amount of vermouth and a large amount of gin or vodka. If you start messing around with this too much you no longer have the genuine article.

   
Acceptable variations include the dirty martini, served with olive brine, or the Gibson martini, served with pickled onion instead of lemon or olive. These are very simple alterations to the classic. 

 

The above Rosemary Martini uses no syrups or fruit juice. It is the same alcoholic strength as a classic martini but with a sublime taste and aroma of a rosemary herbaceous border. It’s a little bit more fancy than a classic but I still consider it essentially a martini.

  

I sometimes blog about certain cocktails if they have become accepted into popular martini culture as having a -tini suffix (the Appletini perhaps, the above Espresso Martini or the Breakfast Martini for example).

   
Otherwise though, I like variations to the classic martini which involve only the tiniest, most subtle alterations. Above, the humble caperberry can turn a classic martini into a full blown filthy martini.

  
With this simplistic philosophy in mind, I wanted to make a martini very close to a classic, but which incorporated the sharp and fresh essence of ginger. I subsequently tried scouring the Internet for existent recipes.

  

Indeed, a ginger martini recipe already exists (it’s referred to as the ‘zen-tini’) but I was disappointed to find that it involved quite a lot of preparation, it was far to complicated, and the finished product, using syrup, wasn’t nearly as strong as a classic martini.

  

Such fuss is hardly my idea of ‘zen’.

  

So I had a think, and decided to put together my own recipe.

After much thought, I came up with something very simple, even comparable to a dirty martini.

The crucial difference is that instead of olive brine it’s made with the juice of freshly grated ginger.

  
Grate a thumb-sized piece of ginger then squeeze the pulp to release the liquid.

   
Take a teaspoon of the juice and pour it into a chilled martini glass.
Add vermouth to taste then top up with chilled gin/vodka and stir.

  
Garnish with a slice of ginger with a small wedge cut out so that it slips over the glass.

Serve.

  
The drink is as strong as a normal martini, but with an added fiery kick of spice and warmth. It’s very good in winter.

  
You can also garnish the drink with a slice of Japanese pickled ginger, which looks very delicate and is a little easier on the palate than a raw ginger slice. If you like the taste you might like my Japanese pickled ginger martini.

  
I’m trying to think up a name for the raw ginger martini. The hot and fiery martini comes to mind.

Perhaps I could name it in honour of Jamaica, the residence of martini fan Ian Fleming and a great producer of fiery ginger goodness. The MontegoBayTini perhaps?

  
I wanted to name it after the distinctive and deadly Jamaican Bond girl Grace Jones but sadly a cocktail has already been named in her honour (one of the most expensive in the world no less…).

  
Someone also suggested that the raw ginger garnish looked a little bit like…

  
…one of Russell Tovey’s ears so I could also name it after him. 

More predictably though, it could also be named after all manner of famous gingers: the Prince Harry martini perhaps, or the Julianne Mooretini.

All suggestions in the comments below will be gratefully received.

Bar Arabica, Borough Market, 2/5

A relatively pleasant martini was let down by bad service and poor value for money.

 

It wouldn’t take much to perfect their martini but some of the fundamentally poor elements of the restaurant will be more difficult to rectify.

  
Nestled under a railway arch in Borough Market, I had high hopes for this Levantine restaurant. However, the service wasn’t particularly attentive, the portions were small and the martini didn’t do it for me.

  
I was looking forward to a tasty za’tar man’oushe, even though I have regularly been warned that you just can’t get good Lebanese food in London. Sadly it didn’t match my Beiruti experiences. It was a little dry and lacking in fresh ingredients.

  
Other portions were small and not cheap, although we did like boregi (essentially the same as börek – a spinach and feta pastry) which was crunchy and satisfying.

  
The atmosphere was pleasant, with the rumble of trains and nice lighting, but some of our dishes were forgotten. Indeed we felt somewhat forgotten on occasion.

When I asked about the gin used in their martini I was told it was a home-made compound gin, but the waiter couldn’t tell me anymore about it.

  
It arrived chilled but not especially cold, in a coupe glass, with a strip of lemon peel. As always, I feel the need to urge London restaurants serving martinis to keep their gin and glasses (martini glasses, not coupe glasses!) in the freezer.

However, this martini was redeemed by its particular lemon flavour – it was especially citrusy which I like. The gin did not seem especially dry, which was perhaps a blessing considering its temperature, but all in all it wasn’t unpleasant.

 
So what to do? Larger portions would be nice. If you’ve ever eaten in the Middle East you will realise that it’s rare to leave a meal without feeling utterly stuffed and potentially in pain from your host’s kind and generous hospitality. This was not the feeling I had at this Levantine restaurant.  More generous portions and attentive service would be in order. Then keep the homemade gin in the freezer and serve it in a proper martini glass.

The Skylon Bar, London 4.5/5

If you’re in London, treat yourself. It’s not that expensive and you’re guaranteed a good quality cocktail in an excellent setting. 

 

This is a lovely bar in a wonderful, all-welcoming part of London. The brutalist Southbank Centre with its grand but minimalist polished concrete slabs enjoys a wonderfully soft form of acoustics. The diverse array of visitors range from pondering thespians to the philosophical homeless, their intriguing conversations all muffled into soporific unintelligible whispering by the imposing edifice of the building itself. It’s an ocean of calm just a few steps from the virulent masses thronging the banks of the River Thames. Wander around the building and you might stumble across a cultural performance by Zulu warriors or perhaps a fierce debate on the topic of lesbian poetry from the 1980s. Whatever you find, you will likely leave feeling a strange, deep connection with your fellow humans.

Anyway, one of the things situated in this strange, post-war monument to what communist Britain might have aspired to be, is a peculiarly yet perfectly juxtaposed bar and restaurant, very firmly on the free-market capitalist side of the fence.

  
The Skylon itself, after which this bar/restaurant was named, was a stylised metal structure erected during the Festival of Britain, a nationwide event held in 1951 commemorating science, art and architecture in an attempt to lift the national mood in the gloomy post-war years. With a very unstable economy, the loss of vast swathes of the British Empire and extensive, enduring human and infrastructural damage suffered during the war times were still very tough in the country.

  
As illustrated in John Ritchie Addison’s photograph above, the Skylon piece cut quite a striking image over the southern banks of the Thames. It was one of many features of art and design erected for the festival but its image remains one of the most enduring.

Nonetheless, it was seen as too costly for the government to bear. The re-elected prime minister Winston Churchill, who knew a thing or two about martinis, also reportedly hated it as a socialist symbol erected by the Labour government which had defeated him in the post-war election.

So naturally he had it torn down and sold for scrap.

  

Oh Winston.

However, while he may have hated the Skylon sculpture, I hope he would approve of the martini served in the nearby restaurant which has taken its name.

Apart from sometimes getting busy (for evident reasons) the only other downside of the bar was the fact that their diverse and highly creative cocktail menu didn’t actually have a classic martini option on it. I would recommend they include one in future as the one they actually served me was almost perfect.

 
I apologised for asking the waitress for an item not on the menu but she asked her manageress and returned to ask whether I would prefer mine made with gin or vodka, and if I would prefer it classical or dirty.

Excellent, I though, and ordered a classic martini (with gin, obviously).

It arrived in a small, but perfectly formed and indeed very elegant martini glass. Lemon peel had been squeezed into the glass and the lemon garnish was artistically cut and fastened onto the rim. I don’t think either the glass or the gin had been kept in the freezer but effort had clearly been put in to chilling both before serving.

  
I also took a moment to admire my friend’s choice of cocktail – the Jamaican Fury. Beautiful and creative, the smoke swirling in the bottle smelt simply of cigarettes, but when decanted into a glass it added a rich, savoury aroma to the otherwise sweet and powerful cocktail.

  
Moments later we were served a bowl of Japanese rice snacks for free. This may sound very simple, possibly even gimmicky, but it’s a vanishingly rare phenomenon in British drinking establishments and adds so much to the martini drinking experience.

Skylon gets 4.5 out of 5 for its martini. It was cold, lemony, in a martini glass, served with nibbles, with an additional selection of good food available on the menu, while the service was friendly and attentive and the setting was relaxed, ambient and stylish (and in one of my favourite buildings in London). For £12.50 I also thought the drink was very good value for money, certainly by London standards and in such a central, prominent venue. I would recommend booking in advance though as it will get crowded.

  
Otherwise, a victorious crowd pleaser. Well done Skylon, long may you reign over the banks of the Thames – but please put the classic martini back on your menu for good.

Mamuśka Polish bar and restaurant, E&C, London

  
This isn’t strictly a post about martinis but I am making a special mention of this tasty bar/restaurant Mamuśka, not least because of the way they treat their spirits (which is well, by the way).

  
The ultimately satisfying carb-fest ‘placki ziemniaczane’ (pancakes made out of potato) will put you into a sumptuous ‘food coma’.

For years Mamuśka restaurant has been a regular visiting spot for Elephant and Castle residents, as well as many from the Polish community throughout London. With the impending destruction of the Elephant and Castle shopping centre they have now moved premises all the way across Elephant and Castle roundabout to occupy the space previously filled by “My Big Fat Greek Restaurant” (where did they go by the way?). We wish them well. The new venue is bigger with additional outside seating.

  
There’s a fun atmosphere with some really friendly staff on hand to assist. The menu is also clearly designed to welcome non-Polish people to experience this rich culture and warming cuisine. Mamuśka (which means “Mum” by the way) also aims to provide lovingly prepared home cooking to the many Poles living far from home.

The simple, wholesome and extraordinarily comforting fare in an unpretentious cafeteria-type setting is perfect for either a quick meal or a relaxing evening with food and drinks.

Do note, however, that if you ever eat here with a hangover you WILL fall into a deep food coma afterwards. It’s cheap and deliciously filling.

  
However, I feel a particular need to mention Mamuśka on my blog because of the way they serve their vodka (they also serve a nice array of beers).

They keep the vodka and the glasses in be freezer. I sounds simple but there is a long list of London cocktail bars who do not do this. Temperature and simplicity are two key aspects when preparing a martini so if Mamuśka ever decided to add them to their menu I know they would do them well. Perhaps they could call them Mamuśka’s ruin.

Martinis or not, this is a favourite spot of mine. I would recommend dropping in for a relaxed, friendly and tasty visit with some excellent drinks to accompany your pierogi, śledź and other tasty bites. Your mother would approve.

Martinis y tapas

  
Having spent an amazing weekend in Madrid I thought I would write about the drinking culture in the city and see what inspiration I could draw from a martini perspective.

  

Los Madrileños know how to have fun – without feeling guilty, without getting stressed and without getting post-apocalyptically drunk. If you feel like having a drink or having something to eat then do so. If you feel like having a nap then do so. The time of day is irrelevant. You shouldn’t feel bad for doing what your body is telling you to do. Eating, drinking and sleeping when you please might sound unhealthy but these people certainly don’t look unhealthy!

  
Another conclusion is that alcohol is much better when accompanied by food.

Tapas or pinchos/pintxos (pronounced peen-chose) are small bites of food that accompany your drink. The adage “eating’s cheating” has few followers in Madrid and I am a faithful convert to the city’s attitude towards eating with booze. I always serve nibbles with my martinis but maybe we should be serving food with all alcohol. It’s not the most radical concept – it’s common practise in many countries (Sri Lanka for example).

If you are unconvinced about eating with your drinks then perhaps I can persuade you with some examples of the sorts of things you could enjoy with your booze.

   

Here is a mind-blowingly tasty assortment of morcilla (a spanish variation of black pudding) with apple, balsamic vinegar glaze and fried potato straws, accompanied with octopus and whole grain mustard ice cream. Yes. Mustard ice cream. Yes.

  
However, if this is too fancy just order your drink (such as a caños of beer which isn’t as much as a full pint) with something as simple as a piece of bread with a topping. Drink, taste and relax. It’s not a race to finish your drink in order to buy the next round.

  

Fried calamari is common. Ham, cheese and olives also feature highly.

  

There are many expert voices on the subject of tapas so this amateur is not going to bluff you, but of the stories that surround its history I have a favourite. According to my friend, at a point in its history Spain was undergoing a drought and food production was low. The people resorted to drinking more alcohol to make up for their lost calories, but this led to widespread malaise and drunkenness. A troubled king, seeking a solution, ordered establishments to serve simple bread and toppings over the top of alcohol glasses (the word tapas comes from the Spanish verb tapar – to cover). When eaten this would soak up some of the alcohol, reduce drunkenness and help feed the population. A cultural trend was born. 

Like martinis, there are several competing stories surrounding the historical origins of tapas. Without a time machine to verify which version is accurate the only thing you can do is believe in your favourite.

 Whatever the true origins of tapas there have been an infinite multitude of variations since its creation. Tapas now even extends to airline food, as demonstrated above.

For me, the most important concept is that the sharing of tapas is very sociable.

  It can be fairly hands-on; you might be called upon to mash your own guacamole.

 
It can also be very simple. Above is a delicious dish of peppers fried with salt. 
So what can we take from this fine Spanish contribution to human culture to try and improve the martini experience?

Snacks, bites and nibbles are a very important part of a martini so tapas can provide a wealth of inspiration for anyone looking to serve theirs with some added Latin panache.

The main point, however, is about relaxing and sharing good flavours, drinks and conversation with friends, family, lovers etc.

  

If you can get that right then everything else should fall into place – ojala.

 
But as a word of warning, don’t drink so much you end up naked on the ground in Plaza de Colón in the middle of the day, although evidently if you do you won’t be the first…

The Tramshed, Shoreditch: 4/5



Overall a fantastic experience. I really enjoyed this restaurant.

The martini I had was also very good, although I would prefer it a little colder (keep everything in the freezer) and with more lemon (squeeze the peel into the glass when pouring). Otherwise it was beautifully served.



While I’ve seen this on the Internet, it was the first time I had actually drink a martini where my “top-up” came in a small bottle in ice on the side. I have been skeptical of this before because while it means the gin will be cold for your second pouring, the glass will have warmed up. I prefer to serve my second martini with a fresh, frozen glass. Nonetheless this, to me, is an effective and efficient means of serving such a drink in a busy restaurant. Furthermore the gin was definitely nice and cold when I poured the second batch. The use of Noccelara olives also wins points.



I loved the old fashioned food, served with raucous panache. It was definitely comfort grub, with roast chicken, chips, steak and Yorkshire pudding, dramatically served as above; herb-encrusted with utensils inserted coquettishly into animal orifices.



The meat was good quality and nicely prepared.



The generously-sized Yorkshire pudding was one of the tastiest forms of carbohydrate I’ve ever eaten in the UK.



After the martini we drank some nice Lebanese wine (Massaya, from the Beqaa Valley).



And… prepare yourself for some innuendo… we also tried the “cock shots” and “shot of bull” which were basically vodka flavoured with chicken stock or beef consommé. We loved the beef one in particular. It had hearty and warming flavour, with the umami of a consommé rendering the drink almost like a miniature Bloody Mary with a kick of horseradish. The shots definitely weren’t a gimmick. I would strongly recommend trying them before eating.



Set in an actual former tram shed, the tiled walls and industrial layout added to the ‘rough and ready’ feel of the venue. The trendy staff, attractive diners and selection of art works (such as the Damian Hirst cow and chicken – above) also came together to produce a brash, fun, modern take on something very traditional. This combination of old and new is something that London continues to get right. Bravo!

L’Escargot Restaurant, Soho, London, 3/5

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I went with some friends to this French restaurant in London, located on Greek Street in Soho. It was an occasionally perplexing and even tense experience, although the martini I drank before my meal was nice.

The staff were friendly and pleasant but there was a strange, intense and even chaotic element to the service. It was difficult to book a table, despite the fact that the place was empty when we turned up at our allotted time.

When I ordered two martinis for the table there was a terrifying episode when the first waiter couldn’t tell if I was saying two martinis or two ‘martinez’ (a variation on the classic martini recipe). The situation escalated until another waiter was called to assist in the translation but he was equally unable to understand my order. There followed vigorous pointing at the menu and eventually they seemed to understand, although during the time they were making the drink I was on the edge of my seat, terrified that they had made a mistake and that I would have to do the British thing of not mentioning it to them once they had served me. The trials of life!

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Fortunately one of the waiters soon returned to ask me how I would like the martini (sweet or dry? Olive or twist?). The drink arrived 10 minutes later and while I don’t think the gin or glass had been kept in the freezer it was still very cold. They had made the effort to serve a good quality martini.

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It didn’t come with any nibbles but we ordered snails which I have to say were utterly delectable and definitely the highlight of the meal.

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The decor of the restaurant was nice, my pate starter was tasty although the main of trout was a little underwhelming. Nonetheless, I will stick to reviewing the martini which I thought was a good effort. It wasn’t just a drink option the management had put on the menu out of pretension. It was made attentively and with care, despite the stressful ordering process.

In short, I would recommend you drop in for a martini and escargot, but probably eat your main course elsewhere.