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Tom Aikens
43 Elystan St
London
SW3 3NT
T: 020 7584 2003
Map

It was pouring rain on Friday night when we arrived at Tom Aikens and we were welcomed with offers to take our coats and wet clothing and quickly shown to our table. Although the tasting menu looked wonderful, we thought we’d go a la carte and try to avoid over-indulging.

After a Sipsmith’s Gin and Tonic, we started with the Housemade Ricotta with Green Olive Juice, Honey Jelly and Pine Nuts and the Marinated Foie Gras with Beetroot & Port, Pickled Raisins and Dried Plums, which were both delicious. Having made our own cod with vanilla butter, we had to try Tom’s Roast Cod with Confit Carrots, Vanilla Butter and Ham Hock and it did not disappoint. Our other choice for main course was the Partridge with Roast Pear, Chocolate and Foie Gras Mousse, which was also fantastic. To finish off we had a cheese platter and the Pistachio Brick with Caramelised Pistachio and Pistachio Milk, which was unique, yummy and very light.

We thoroughly enjoyed our evening at Tom Aikens and can’t wait to go back. The food was very tasty, fantastically presented and not in the slightest bit pretentious, which is rare for a high-end London restaurant. Yes, there were the gels and powders common in modern gastronomy, but there was none of the usual snobbiness.  To top the evening off, we just happened to run into Tom himself on our way out and were able to thank him in person for a wonderful evening and fantastic food.

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Ateneu Gastronomic

Pas de l’Ensenyanca, 2 bis
Barri Gotic
08002 Barcelona
93 302 13 57
Map

Based on previous experiences with “traditional” Spanish and Portuguese food, my first instinct was to avoid this place. But with the Formula 1 race this weekend, Barcelona was very full and there was at least an hour’s wait at better looking places. We should have left before the waiter carried an aluminum table from the outdoor patio into the restaurant and over the heads of unsuspecting patrons. Our table was placed about six inches from two other tables and was right in the middle of the main thoroughfare, as well as directly in front of the toilets.

We ordered the Fishermen’s Soup and Melon with Iberian Ham for starters. Although well over-priced at €15.50, the ham and melon looked to be one of the safest choices on the menu and was in fact very good. (However I think it is difficult to mess up a dish that consists of a piece of fruit and some cured meat). The soup was average and contained both recognizable and unrecognizable pieces of seafood.

For the main course we chose the Fillet Steak and Grilled Sole. The steak was ordered medium but when it arrived it was almost raw and wobbled on the plate. After we reiterated the request for it to be cooked “medium”, the plate was whisked away and returned about twenty minutes later. The steak now looked more seared on the outside and slightly less wobbly on the inside. Meanwhile I wrestled with the Sole which had been grilled to the point of being suitable for use as a weapon. Using both my knife and fork, I attempted to pry the hard rubbery flesh away from the bones while avoiding the drab over-boiled vegetables. As it turned out, it was lucky that my Sole adventure was almost over by the time the steak reappeared. The aluminum patio table was not up to the task of supporting the forces incurred by the cutting of the steak and wobbled almost enough to spill the wine out of our glasses.

When we sat down the couple next to us had just paid their bill and didn’t look very happy. Now we know why… When the bill came we were absolutely shocked. We have never been charged so much for such terrible food. Combined with the dismal table location and nearly being clipped in the head with a chair being carried across the restaurant, there isn’t anything positive to say about this place.

On our way out we heard another couple say to the waiter “Excuse me. This steak is not cooked!” Although tempted to tell them to leave now before it was too late we selfishly left the restaurant as fast as we could. As we were walking away we realized that not once had they asked if everything was okay with the food. I guess they they’ve learned over the years that it’s best not to ask!

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Hotel du Vin Bistro – Cambridge

Trumpington Street
Cambridge
CB2 1QA
01223 227330

A week ago today Tim and I went to the newly opened Hotel du Vin Bistro for our last lunch before he left Cambridge. Having cycled by the Hotel du Vin almost every day during its construction we were both eager to try it out and having recently heard about their lunch specials, we decided to give it a go.

The lunch specials are £15.50 for two courses or £17.50 for three, which is clearly the better deal, but we were stuffed after the first two courses. As a starter Tim had the Caesar salad that came with an egg that appeared to have been poached and went with the salad beautifully. He had the bangers and mash for the main course and said, and I quote, “the bangers had a lovely rich taste”. I started with the Cauliflower soup which was very creamy and filling and then had a sweet pea risotto for my main course. I enjoyed the risotto even though the rice didn’t seem to be arborio rice, which I use for risottos. I probably would have had the bangers and mash if I hadn’t already taken some sausages out for supper.

We thought the service was great, even though we were a bit under dressed with our rucksacks and trainers, and the food the excellent too. We were a bit disappointed by the 10% service charge that was automatically added to the bill, but maybe that is just for the lunch specials. It seems more and more restaurants are adding service charge. Having been a waitress for a few years I know the value of tips and gladly tip 10% for average service (in the Europe, 15% in North America) and up to 20% if the service is particularly good. But when I see that 10% has just been added to my bill, I get a bit offended. It’s almost like they don’t trust me to tip well enough. However, the service charge has not put me off returning to the Hotel du Vin Bistro and I am looking forward to trying their dinner menu.

Update:

Saturday night Rob and I went to Hotel du Vin for dinner. Once again this week I was unsuccessful in securing a reservation but we decided to take our chances and turn up anyway. Just before we arrived they had a cancellation and we were seated immediately. As with lunch, the food for dinner was excellent.  Rob had a smoked duck starter and the venison main and I had a goat cheese crottin for starter and the double-baked cheese souffle for a main course. Dessert was also yummy.. Rob had the apple tart and I had a selection of ice creams. After dinner we went downstairs to the bar, where we drank another bottle of red wine. It wasn’t a cheap evening, but as our taxi driver said “it’s worth it!”.  Overall a great night out.

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D’Arrys Wine Shop

2-4 King Street
Cambridge
CB1 1LN
01223 505015

Situated where the old Cambridge Arms Pub used to be, D’Arrys is a relatively new entrant to the Cambridge scene. I’m not sure when they opened (I would say at least six months ago), but since most of our taxi drivers haven’t heard of it, I would still classify it as a new restaurant.

Rob and I have been to D’Arrys for dinner several times and it has always been busy but good. I don’t think they take bookings but Rob and I like to have a drink at the bar while waiting for a table anyway. We’ve had a variety of things off the menu on other visits but this visit Rob had the Chicken stuffed with Chorizo on Rosti Potatoes and Salad and I had the Fish Pie with Roasted Potatoes and Garden Veg, both of which were yummy. Rob has also had the fish and chips a few times (and probably would have again if I hadn’t persuaded him to try something new).

We go back to D’Arrys because we like the buzzing atmosphere and the friendly staff. We tend to go late (9 or 9:30ish) and by having a drink before dinner, we can turn a meal into a nice night out. The menu does seem to be small though (but don’t forget to check the specials board) and the tables we get seated at are quite tiny. The tables for four people seem to be larger but cozy seems to be a theme. The wine menu is extensive although we usually get a bottle of our favourite, the Stump Jump red.

I definitely recommend D’Arrys for a nice meal with friends or a romantic dinner for two.

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Gratineed Gnocchi with Spinach and RicottaI made this yummy recipe from Gourmet magazine the other night with a pack of store-bought gnocchi in my cupboard. I had been struggling to come up with what to do with them and was drawn to this recipe because it wasn’t gorgonzola or tomato based as most gnocchi recipes seem to be.

I followed the recipe on the Gourmet site except for two substitutions. I used a few tablespoons of single cream topped up with milk because I didn’t have any double cream on hand and because it was healthier. This did make it a bit more watery though and I had to cook the cream sauce for a bit longer. I also didn’t have any mozzarella, strangely I find it hard to get in the UK because all the stores seem to have is fresh mozzarella, so I substituted some grated cheddar.

The recipe says it serves four, but I had half of it the first night with a green salad and the rest for supper the next night.

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This year I was determined to have a Canadian Thanksgiving dinner. Usually I get all wrapped up in Freshers’ week activities and forget that Canadian Thanksgiving is coming up. Everyone always asks me why us Canadians have Thanksgiving on a different day than the Americans. So here goes..

In Canada we celebrate on the second Monday in October and unlike the Americans who remember the safe arrival of the Pilgrims, we give thanks for a successful harvest. More detailed explanations can be found on Wikipedia and here.

Since Thanksgiving is a harvest festival, I wanted to make use of as many locally sourced products as I could. I bought a locally grown free-range organic chicken from a new deli and shop in Cambridge called Origin8 which specializes in local, organic meat, game and produce. From the market in the city centre I got local onions, celery, potatoes, carrots, apples, parsnips and a little pumpkin for a homemade pie, and from the garden outside I picked fresh sage. The wild rice was imported (by me!) and was my token representative of the Canadian harvest.

I stuffed a 1.6kg chicken (the biggest they had) and had lots of stuffing left over that I baked in aluminum foil alongside the chicken. I roasted potatoes, carrots and parsnips drizzled in olive oil and minced garlic. Unfortunately fresh cranberries are only available at Christmas in the UK, so I had to settle for cranberry sauce from a jar, but all in all, it was a fabulous dinner enjoyed with good friends.


Wild Rice Stuffing

Preparation time: 20 mins.
Makes about 6 cups.

2 1/2 cups dried multi-grain bread, cubed
1 medium onion, chopped
1 tbsp fresh sage, chopped
3 stalks celery, chopped
2 cups wild rice, cooked
1/4 lb butter, melted
1/2 cup water or stock
2 small apples, chopped
1/2 cup raisins
1/8 cup walnuts

1. In a large mixing bowl, stir together the bread, onion, sage, celery and wild rice.

2. Combine the melted butter with water or stock and gently mix into the bread mixture.

3. Add the apples, raisins and walnuts and toss.

4. Carefully stuff the chicken or turkey taking care not to pack too tightly – otherwise it will get sticky. If you don’t want to stuff the bird, or have extra stuffing that doesn’t fit, bake it in a covered casserole dish or aluminum foil for about an hour.

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Alimentum

Restaurant Alimentum

152 – 154 Hills Road
Cambridge
CB2 8PB
01223 413000

Last Saturday night Rob and I went to Alimentum, the new restaurant on the Cambridge scene. I had had been wanting to try it since I first saw the sign go up a few months ago. It is so great to see another independent restaurant in chain-riden Cambridge. Their website, which is mainly a blog by the owner, describes it as “modern French food with some Spanish and Italian influences”. The blog idea makes the website different from most other restaurant sites, but it is a really personal touch. Reading the blog entries made me feel I had a connection to the place and made me want to try the restaurant even more.

The service was great, which impressed me as often the nicer restaurants don’t pay much attention to younger people, who I guess they assume won’t tip well or can’t afford to pay the bill. We started with a drink at the bar, and because we had a late sitting (9:30), we were asked if we would like to order before being seated at the table to speed things up. At first I didn’t like this idea, but in hindsight it was brilliant. It meant that by the time we sat down, our starters were ready.

I found it very difficult to select only one starter as they all looked amazing. In the end I chose the Watercress & Endive with Pear, Roquefort & Caramelised Walnuts and Rob had the Ravioli of Chicken, Girolles with Iberico Ham both of which were fabulous. I had more difficulty choosing a main course, and although I’m sure they are all delicious, I went for the Sea Bass, Cannelloni of Crab, Fennel purée & Shellfish cappuccino. I wasn’t a big fan of the cappuccino, which was a foam on top, but the sea bass was perfectly cooked. Rob tried the Rump of Lamb, Confit of Shoulder Moussaka & Lambs Sweetbreads which he also really enjoyed.

I liked the decor, which is very modern, but Rob wasn’t a big fan. Most of the tables were nicely spaced but where we sat on the banquette I found it a bit too easy to eavesdrop on our neighbours who were very close to us. The menu was small but I hope it will get larger with time. I guess it’s safer to start out with a few dishes and do them really well than to try too many. There are some pics of the food at Kake Pugh’s flickr site.

I would definitely go back to Alimentum. It was more expensive than most of our Saturday night dinners around Cambridge but I thought it was worth it. The whole experience exuded attention to detail and a passion for food and service that you just don’t get in many other restaurants.

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Delicious Big Bowl – Quinoa

I’m moving out of my flat in a few weeks and I’ve been trying to use up some of my many opened bags of grains in the cupboard. I have paella rice, risotto rice, wild rice, basmati rice, long grain brown rice, buckwheat groats, quinoa, millet and bulghur. I made kasha for breakfast the other day and today I decided it was a day for quinoa so I had a quick search on 101cookbooks.com for quinoa. I have previously made Heidi’s Lemon Scented Quinoa Salad and it was fab so I had high hopes for the Delicious Big Bowl – Quinoa. And let me say, it did not disappoint.

I substituted some green beans and a courgette for the asparagus, toasted some pine nuts and for the dressing I used lemon juice, parmesan and freshly ground pepper. I wouldn’t normally think to put potatoes with quinoa, but the textures and flavours in this recipe combined wonderfully. I’ve just eaten a big bowl for supper and am looking forward to eating the rest for tomorrow’s lunch. It was one of those meals where I constantly thought” wow how good is this”. Thanks Heidi for another great recipe. You’ve really perked up my day.

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Pork Stroganoff

Tim made this Pork Stroganoff recipe for me last week from the BBC Food website. We didn’t have any blue potatoes, so he used some white ones in the pantry. He also added some sliced runner beans which went very nicely. I find that pork can often be quite dry when cooked, but I liked this recipe because there was lots of good sauce.

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Mustard-crusted Tofu with Kale and Sweet Potato

Mustard-Crusted Tofu with Kale and Sweet Potato

I came across this Bon Appetit recipe in my weekly Epicurious Recipe Flash a few weeks ago. I’m always looking for new tofu recipes and I had some wholegrain mustard in the fridge that I needed to use up so I thought I’d give it a try. I made sure to dry the tofu well as recommended by lots of the reviews on the Epicurious site to make sure the mustard would stick. Some of the mustard seeds did fall off, but I just poured the crispy seeds from the pan on top at the end and they were great. I thought this recipe would have a strong mustardy taste, but there was actually very little mustard flavour in the end. I thought the lime juice went really nicely with the kale but next time I would put the kale in nearer the end. By the time the sweet potato was cooked the kale was overdone. The recipe says to grill the tofu for 2 minutes on each side but I found that to get a nice crust on it took at least 5 minutes a side. Although the recipe says it makes four servings, I only had enough kale and sweet potato for two servings using their amounts.

In short, interesting flavours and good way to eat kale, a source of calcium, iron and lots of other minerals.

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