A Perfect Day in Chianti

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Last year, I won a writing competition where the prize was a week-long stay at Villa Cigano, in the heart of the Chianti region. I can’t think of a lovelier place to spend a week in the summer. Perched high up above the small town of Vagliagli, the villa looked out over the rolling Tuscan hillside. The crest of the ridges fell away from us, until at dusk, the faraway hills merged into the inky blue sky…. 

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Le Lapin Rouge: A popup with panache

lapin menu

I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again. London’s supper club scene sometimes makes me sad.

Too many friends have acted on Time Out’s recommendation to spend £38 at Underground Dining – where you pay a premium for the pleasure of eating on a disused tube carriage. Booze isn’t included in the price, and it’s not BYOB. So once you’re there, the cost of a meal rockets to nearer £60.… 

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Gourmet San

I love Bethnal Green. I think that it’s one of the best places in the world and that any Londoner who lives elsewhere is a moron.

For nearly two years I’ve been on a one-woman campaign to try and persuade anyone who doesn’t live there to move immediately.

So far my conversion rate is nil.

But I think persistence is the key—and, like any good missionary, I won’t stop until I’ve rescued everybody I know and love who has lost their way and ended up south of the river. I shall gather my ‘flock’ and herd them over London Bridge to the Eden that is Bethnal Green where we can live together in harmony and bliss.

Like anyone who is madly in love, I can only see things through rose-tinted glasses. If anyone from SW3 dare suggest that Bethnal Green is quite far out, I reply that it is, of course, them who is out in the sticks. Not me.
If someone dares bring up crime rates in Tower Hamlets, then I’ll allude to the handbag-nickings that go on in the posh ol’ West End. I can only see the charm of the street market—not the mess, and all the pretty local dogs—not the snarling staffies. It’s like selective hearing—but a type that affects sight as well as sound.

I expect it’s no huge surprise that restaurants are a prominent feature in my Bethnal Green marketing spiel. But, dear readers, I must confess that that my monologues on the burgeoning food scene in East London are the teeniest, tiniest bit biased as well.

As part of my propaganda mission, I have only written about the recent bout of ‘regeneration restaurants’: Corner Room, Viajante, Brawn…etc. But in doing so, I have failed to mention that the vast majority of the places to eat on Bethnal Green Road itself are, well…scrot.

The stark reality is that it’s a road littered with chicken bones from greasy fast food joints. Gregg’s and KFC are quite a big deal, and you can get more prawn crackers than you can eat for £1 at Noodle King. But you won’t feel good afterwards. E.Pellicci and Cafe 338 are super—but more for soaking up lastnight’s booze than a gastronomic experience, and G.Kelly’s pie and mash is only really good for an authentic, post-war rationing experience.

So I thought that—for the sake of bringing you an accurate depiction of Bethnal Green Road—I’d review a…more representative restaurant in the area rather than one of the newbies that are bucking the trend.

Now, I have lived in Bethnal Green for more than two years, and (if I average one walk up and down Bethnal Green Road per day), I must have passed Gourmet San over a thousand times now. But I’d never noticed the bleak little Chinese restaurant sandwiched between a DIY shop and a kebab house.

That was until a Chinese friend (who considered himself somewhat of an authority on Chinese food) told me that it was the best Chinese restaurant in all of London—forget Soho’s China Town…tourist rubbish…this is the real deal. Since then I began to notice how packed it was whenever I passed it. So when a couple of friends recently mentioned its cult-status, I thought it was time to pay Gourmet San a visit.

When we arrived, the downstairs room was packed out. The Maneki Neko (beckoning cat) bobbed its raised paw from the counter and conversation rose over the sound from the wall-mounted plasma. We were taken upstairs to a silent, undecorated room. Though when I say ‘room’, I might mean a bedroom—just with no bed in it.
Gourmet San was definitely more ‘house’ than ‘restaurant’. Reminiscent of Selly Oak university dinners with ikea tables and never quite enough space. Perhaps when all the diners left, someone pressed a button which whisked the tables and chairs into cupboards and flipped a Murphy bed out of the wall.

Just as I was thinking how extraordinarily bland the interior was, I was handed a menu, which was enough to avert all attention from the white walls and to the pages and pages of food which easily constituted the weirdest menu I’ve ever come across. It makes Heston look like a pussycat, and St John’s seem as if it’s using the safe cuts of meat.

If you’re into barbecued meat then you can have BBQ rabbit back leg or the BBQ rabbit front leg or the BBQ rabbit kidney—or perhaps a BBQ quail if rabbit isn’t your thing. There’s sautéed ox tripe slices with scallion—and if you’re not a fan of sautéing, there’s braised ox tripe slices with mashed garlic instead.
Sea animals meet land mammals with bizarre combinations such as pork lungs and fish in chilli sauce or spicy pig intestines and fish head. And creations for those with a more adventurous palette include jellyfish with black vinegar or stir fried prawn with tea leaf.

Now, the formative years of my education in food took place during the era of Ramsey’s Kitchen Nightmares. For those who missed the endless installments of this hour-long epic, the general formula of the program would involve Gordon exposing the rotting pantries and revolting food in restaurants which were serving 45 bad dishes. He’d pare down the menu to five dishes using fresh ingredients, paint the walls a different colour, and everyone would live happily ever after.

So imagine my horror at the 126-dish menu at Gourmet San which included at least 60% of the animals that made it onto Noah’s Arc—the logistics alone are mind-boggling. Even if all the ingredients are frozen, how on earth do they all fit in one or even two or three chest freezers?

I was comforted by the fact that the downstairs kitchen contained see-through glass, so the chefs couldn’t get up to too much naughty business while preparing their pig-lung, jellyfish combinations….but I have to admit that (despite ordering a very safe garlic chicken and noodle dish), I was pretty nervous about what was going to arrive…

And what unnecessary anxiety it turned out to be. By the time I’d sipped half a Tsingtao, a steaming hot bowl of delicious food arrived. Unlike other greasy, battered or too-sweet Chinese food, this was balanced and tasty and wholesome. The translucent noodles looked like laminaria seaweed and tasted light and beautiful, and the chicken was just scrumptious for a someone who loves garlic as much as I do.

I’ve got no idea how they did it. Especially as two beers and two big main courses came to a not-so-big £24. As we left, we walked past six tables downstairs with happy diners eating the widest range of dishes: squid, then aubergine, then sea bass, then chicken stir fry and rabbit. And they all looked delicious.

So apologies for my Bethnal Green Road bigotry. I set out to bring you a real east end restaurant review, and I have. It was great. Another reason to come and live in E2.

261 Bethnal Green Road, London, E2
020 7729 8388

PS. If you don’t believe me that this place is the real deal, read Jay Rayner’s review
PPS. And if you want to find out why The Observer ran such a lame picture with the review, click here.

Game for it….popping up with the Queens of Cue

It’s hard to have a really epic night out in London for just £25.

You could buy three warm beers at Mahiki….or you could just about check you and your coat into Raffles. Dammit, you could put £25 on your Oyster card, and leave it on a bus.

I suppose you could just about get a calzone and bottle of house red at Pizza Express. But no matter how entertaining your fellow diners, it’s nigh on impossible to have a truly epic night in the bland surroundings of a Pizza Express at the end of your road.

And this is one of the fun things about Queen of Cue. It’s not at the end of your road. It’s not near your local tube stop. It’s not near any tube stop. It really is about as remote as you can get in this crowded capital.

Typically, Tom and I ignored the advice of getting off the tube at South Bermondsey, and decided to take a scenic route from Surrey Quays.

If I didn’t think it was a stupid idea at the time, once I’d left the safety of the East London Line, and was in the depths of gritty Southwark, I was starting to think we’d been a bit idiotic—particularly as I was wearing my new, urban-Barbour and Tom was in chinos…still insisting on stopping the most toothless, alcohol-saturated passersby for directions to Millwall Stadium. (I realise at this point that it seems like I’m lazily relying on stereotypes to tell this story-but it really was how it happened…!)

“What’re you looking for Millwall?” the first guy asked. An entirely reasonable question.

The thing is that if you’re lost and trying to find Queens of Cue, then heading to Millwall Stadium is actually the best way to get back on track.

What I didn’t know about Millwall Stadium though was that if you approach it from the wrong way then you end up in the kettling lanes running under the railway arches, which are lined with angry wire fences to prevent escape.

Fans escaping from the police, or opposition fans escaping home fans.

“Don’t worry—it’s fine round here” Tom consoled me. “Actually, I think I can smell a pig farm – bit like Suffolk.”

Not so consoling.
The last thing you want when you’re in a scene from Football Factory is to be reminded of the wisdom offered by Snatch:

“They will go through bone like butter. You need at least sixteen pigs to finish the job in one sitting, so be wary of any man who keeps a pig farm.”

I digress, but the point is that when something’s so difficult to find, it’s usually worth looking for. And Queens of Cue was no exception. Up some rickety, metal stairs lit by tea lights, on the second floor of a crumbly warehouse is an artists’ studio. When resident (glass) artist Saga decides to host a themed night, then the dining tables come out, and her friend Ruth lights up the oil-drum barbecues on the roof.

It’s ‘bring your own booze’…but when we arrived we were given a (phenomenal) complimentary cocktail to help take the edge off the journey. Past events have included ‘Fish and Seafood Feast’, ‘Celebration of the Cow’ and ‘A Pig Named Sue’, which incorporated Queens of Cue’s novel bike-chain-spit-roast-contraption…but the night we were lucky enough to be at was a ‘Game and Venison’ evening.

First thing’s first (and I’m only being completely and totally and brutally honest because I’d hate to recommend this to someone who was expecting haute cuisine), the food was a little mixed.
The venison terrine was, sadly, overpowered by the fruity damson…but then the game stew was crammed with the most delicious flavours—who knew rabbit and squirrel went so well?!

The stew was also accompanied by the creamiest, dreamiest mashed potato I’ve ever come across—particularly impressive considering the primitive cooking set-up. If I could make mash like that on a range, then I’d be thrilled—let alone on an oil drum barbecue!

Next up was an assortment of game birds—served up like an 18th century continental feast…platters of bird on the bone to pick at. Quail, then wood pigeon…designed for the most hardened meat eaters.

The meal ended with poached pears, spiced cream and coffee served in a beautiful assortment of receptacles.

Adventurous though the journey there had been, and adventurous though the meal was…we decided to rein in the intrepid events, and got a taxi back.
In conclusion, the food wasn’t mind-blowing, but it was damned exciting. It’s not a slick pop up for gastronomic perfectionists. The fact alone that it was the last pop-up of the year (due to the lack of heating in the studio) demonstrates the wonderful higgledy-piggledy nature of it all.

When I explained the concept of pop ups to my Grandad, he thought it was an excellent idea—a way for people who can’t play bridge to meet new people (‘how do you meet new people otherwise?!’). And that’s exactly what happened…lots of interesting, new people, with lots of wine and lots of game (…thankfully of the non-bridge variety!)