Review: The Chilli Pickle, Brighton

Oooo… lovely. A cup of steaming hot chai, sweet and spicy and milky and deeply reviving. Exactly as you’d get it from a good chai-wallah in Delhi. In fact it takes me straight back to the spice market in Jodhpur, or the book seller in Udaipur. While I got sick to the back teeth with all the hard-sell and hassle on the “Rajasthan circuit” we did a few years ago, there were a handful of genuinely pleasant tradesmen we spent time with; discussing (and purchasing) whole spices, and buying some lovely leather-bound books of handmade paper. In both cases a useful lad was sent out to get cups of chai from one of the nearby wallahs, obviously to help lubricate the relaxed sales process, and that small, hot cup of brew is an indelible part of my memories of India.

Which is why whenever I visit Brighton, I always find myself at Chilli Pickle. Either for lunch, dinner or just a drink. Because they make a magical cup of chai, and the best indication of authenticity I can think of is that it transports me right back to Jodhpur market. I’ve had chai at some of the more famous nouveau-Indian restaurants in London that don’t transport me anywhere.

As you can probably tell, this isn’t really a review, it’s more a raving recommendation for a great place in Brighton to get Indian food that both hums with authenticity but also delivers neat, original, modern dishes. Chef Alun Sperring has worked at The Cinnamon Club, but rather than replicate the white-linen fine-dining-with-spice here in Brighton he is providing all the same quality and authenticity but in a more colourful and relaxed setting. Closer to the roots.

Today we just had lunch, both in the form of roti wraps. Maureen’s was an earthy, fiery laal mans made with local Sussex mutton and tempered with an uplifting mint relish and a chilli pickle with lovely burnt flavours. Mine was a venison sheek kebab, buzzing with lots of dark and fruity spices. Along with the mint relish I had an astoundingly pink beetroot raita, which is of course both perfect for venison and also chimes with the vibrancy and colour of Indian cooking.

It happens to also chime nicely with the décor at Chilli Pickle. Bold colours on the walls, simple unvarnished hardwood tables, decorated with huge shelves stacked with Indian cooking vessels and colourful bags of rice. There’s a big open kitchen at one end of the restaurant. Contemporary, and Indian, and Brightonian. Their original location in the Lanes was more cosy, but they’ve filled a much larger space in the new Jubilee Square very well and picked up a Bib Gourmand in the process.

Service is always friendly and helpful. To be honest I can’t comment on the wine selection, as I’ve never looked at it. It’s lassi all the way for me when I eat here, either the startlingly spicy and refreshing salt lassi or the thick and oh-so-rosy gulab lassi. Wonder if I can find an excuse for one more trip to Brighton before Christmas?

Apple soufflé with white chocolate parfait

I spend more time reading food blogs now that I have a food blog. Inevitable perhaps, but I’ve certainly learned some new things to do with favourite ingredients and I’ve got some good tips for restaurants to try (and others to steer clear of). It’s a nice way to while away some time.

So equally inevitably I’ve stumbled onto “round-ups”, whereby a blogger asks for recipes on a theme and then summarises them on their own blog, with links. Good publicity for them, good publicity for all the entrants. It’s something I could easily get hooked on. “We Should Cocoa” is a monthly round-up of recipes pairing chocolate (obviously) with another ingredient. This month the round-up is hosted by Chocolate Log Blog and the ingredient is… apples. Which if you think about it are one fruit not commonly paired with chocolate. That got me thinking.

Attempt #1: Apple tempura with a chocolate and sake dipping sauce

Well, this didn’t quite work out. Nothing disastrous, and we enjoyed eating it, but it’s not a recipe worthy of offering up. Apples just don’t seem cut out for tempura: the slightly softened texture they have after a quick deep-frying is a little unappealing in batter. On top of that, although the batter was light and I made the chocolate sauce deliberately thin, dipping batter in chocolate is a very rich experience. Almost Scottish, dare I say.

On the positive side, I dipped some roughly torn pieces of a good cooked ham into the spare batter and can confirm that tempura ham is delicious. Big thumbs-up, better than tempura prawns in fact. And also the combination of sake and chocolate is a winning one, worthy of further investigation. It’s something about the nutty rice notes in the wine that play so well with dark chocolate.

Attempt #2: Apple soufflé with white chocolate parfait
Okay, less experimental. I love making soufflés, they’re easy and impressive and can be flavoured with anything. With no ice cream maker the only challenge was finding a frozen chocolate accompaniment that doesn’t require the hassle of stirring it regularly while it freezes. So: this was pronounced delicious by everyone and is my entry to ‘We Should Cocoa’ this month.

For the parfait
100g white chocolate
340ml double cream
60ml water
80g caster sugar
4 large eggs yolks
For the soufflés
1 1/2 cooking apples
2 dessert spoons sugar
Juice of half a lemon
2 star anise
1 inch root ginger, roughly chopped
1 tsp cinnamon powder
1 dessert spoon of calvados
3 large eggs
1 dessert spoon caster sugar

The parfait is taken from a recipe by James Perry, and you’ll have plenty spare. The soufflé recipe makes 4.

  1. To make the parfait, melt the chocolate in a bowl set over simmering water. Meanwhile whip the cream to the soft peak stage and set aside. Bring the water and sugar to the boil in a small pan until the sugar has dissolved – you want a syrup only, not caramel. Whisk the egg yolks until pale and thickened then pour in the hot sugar syrup and continue to whisk for one minute. Whisk the melted chocolate into this mixture, then quickly fold in the whipped cream. Pour into a tub and freeze for a couple of hours.
  2. Macerate the apples by putting them in a pan with the lemon juice, calvados and two dessert spoons of sugar. Add the cinnamon, ginger and star anise then mix together. Leave for an hour.
  3. Now bring the apples to the boil and simmer for 15 minutes or so until well broken down. Push them through a sieve to make pureé. Taste it for sweetness, add a little more sugar if needed.
  4. Separate the three eggs. Beat the yolks, then add half the apple pureé and beat. Divide the rest of the apple pureé between four ramekins, to form a base.
  5. Whisk the whites to stiff peaks. Add a dessert spoon of caster sugar and whisk for another minute. Put a big dessert spoon of the whites into the yolk mix and stir together to loosen it. Now add the rest of the whites and fold together without over-mixing, as this will lose the air. Better to have it slightly unmixed than a flat soufflé.
  6. Fill the ramekins with the mixture, be as neat or scruffy as you like with the top. Put them on a baking tray in the oven at 170C for 15 minutes or until they’re fully risen and nicely browned on top.
  7. Dust with icing sugar, then at the table top each soufflé with a quenelle of parfait. Poke a hole in the top first and the parfait should sink into the soufflé and melt. You can serve another quenelle of parfait on the side too.

A couple of chef-y notes on this…

  • Firstly, the best way I’ve found to get good steep ‘walls’ on risen soufflés is to butter the inside of the ramekins and then swirl caster sugar around in them to get a coating. The egg whites shy away from this and so rise vertically. I know it works, because this time I lazily didn’t do it and they didn’t rise so well!
  • The crumb on the parfait in the photo is a praline. I toasted hazelnuts for 15 minutes at 150C then rubbed the skins off, then gently cooked a couple of tbsp caster sugar in a small pan until it melted and was golden caramel, then added the hazelnuts, then poured it onto greaseproof paper to cool, then whizzed in a food processor to crumbs. It was very, very tasty but hid the white chocolate flavour a bit so I’ve left it out of the recipe.
  • I don’t know how to make quenelles! Lots of playing around with two spoons while the parfait started melting. It sorta worked. I think practise is probably key.

Beetroot and black pudding salad (no bird)

You won’t find any decomposing bird carcasses in this salad recipe.

While you recover from that truly horrible thought, perhaps you can help me out. What exactly is the definition of a salad? The dictionary tells me that it is a cold dish that includes green leaves such as lettuce. This is clearly nonsense as I have had warm salads and salads without the tiniest speck of rabbit food on them. So what specification does a dish have to meet for it to be called a salad? Such things have the power to bother me.

This salad is really good as an autumn supper, full of earthy ingredients. Heck, some of my favourite ingredients of all. It’s very seldom my fridge doesn’t contain a ring of black pudding, a bunch of beetroot, a lump of goat cheese and there are always hazelnuts in the cupboard. Toss in a few pea shoots or watercress and this instantly becomes a healthy salad, of course.

Beetroot and black pudding salad

1-2 beetroot per person
50g goat cheese per person (your preference)
4-5 slices from a black pudding ring per person
8 or so whole hazelnuts per person
1 tbsp Dijon mustard
1 tbsp sherry vinegar (or wine vinegar is fine)
2-3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
Juice of half a lemon
Handful of fresh parsley with a few mint leaves
  1. Pull any stalks and leaves off the beetroot but leave the skin on. Boil them in their skins for 30 minutes, or until you can easily shove a knife through one. Once drained, you should be able to rub the skins off and just chop the beetroot into bitesize chunks.
  2. Fry the black pudding rings in a little olive oil. I find a moderate heat and a longer time is a better, a bit of softness inside is good but the black crunchiness is really important to enjoying black pudding. Once a little cooler, you could chop each slice in half or quarters to be bite-sized.
  3. Roast the hazelnuts in the oven at 150C for about 10 minutes. I hesitate to give an exact time as ovens vary, but keep an eye on them – you want them to go golden brown where they show through the skin, not too dark. Once cool you should be able to rub the skin off, and then halve them.
  4. The dressing is made by beating the mustard, vinegar, lemon juice and oil together to emulsify and then stir in the herbs finely chopped and season. Dress the beetroot and the pea shoots/watercress separately, or the red stain will spread!
  5. Assemble the salad however you like: beetroot, black pudding, cut or broken-up goat cheese, leaves, hazelnuts, a drizzle of dressing.

This could be the side-dish for a pan-fried mackerel, or an omelette. I like it as a supper, perhaps with a poached egg on top or with some boiled potatoes added to lengthen it all.

Adventures in salad

  • Pick different leafy stuff to balance the earthy flavours, but go for something with taste such as chicory or a herb salad. Rocket might be a tad strong.
  • I like the parsley with a lift of mint, but I also enjoyed this vinaigrette with fresh thyme and it could be great with sage as well.
  • Any number of other scrunchy things would work instead of hazelnuts: toasted pinenuts, walnut pieces, crutons.
  • Omit rabbit food entirely, add fine beans simply boiled instead.
  • Add a couple of rashers of smoked streaky, or some bits of chorizo lightly fried to give another meaty note
  • Do not under any circumstances try adding a decomposing bird to this salad.

I could go on forever. It almost feels cheeky to call this a recipe, when it’s really just a bunch of my favourite ingredients tossed together with a dressing! Enjoy.

Foodie’s day out, Bath-style

Whenever I visit Bath, and I do visit at least three or four times every year, Saturday morning is invariably given over to a jaunt down to Green Park Station for the weekly Farmer’s Market. Of course, it seems that every town in the land can now boast a Farmer’s Market, and a jolly good thing that is. But there are markets and there are markets. I do start to feel a little sceptical when I see more iced cupcake and turkish wrap vendors than I do fruit and veg stalls. It’s understandable: you need a particular combination of good local producers and well-heeled foodies who spurn supermarkets to make a really splendid Farmer’s Market viable. Bath most definitely has that combination.

I can’t really explain why this is my favourite Farmer’s Market, but at least in part it’s the sense that almost everyone selling here has come from no more than ten or fifteen miles away, and everything is superb. It should definitely be the cornerstone of any foodie weekend break in Bath. You will come away with enough stuff to keep you pigged out all weekend, even without all the eating-out options in this handsome little city.

My purchases this time included a couple of great cheeses I’ve never tried before, a bag of Jerusalem artichokes and other fresh organic veg, a bottle of single varietal apple juice (Foxwhelp, actually a cider apple and you can really taste it), some dramatic black salt, lamb chops, a box of perfect little mushrooms, very colourful beetroot bread, my favourite smoked mackerel pate, and fresh ravioli filled with garlicky lamb and woodsy mushrooms.

We devoured the pasta for lunch, it was delicious. I may well place an online order soon, Jazz Hands Artisan Pasta, at least once you get your online order form up!

So, let me think. You’ve come for a foodie weekend in Bath and have dutifully followed me to Green Park Station on a Saturday morning. What else are you going to do? How about a very quick run-down of some of the places I like eating in Bath (all of which I’ve visited within the last six months)…

Start with breakfast at Jika-Jika, where they take their coffee seriously, their artwork whimsically (and slightly rudely), and their food jolly tastily.

Elevensies would be good at The Fine Cheese Co. which could equally call itself the Fine Cake Co. along with great coffee and a lovely deli. Afterwards you will buy lots of cheese, of course.

Lunch! Try the idiocyncratic Cavendish Cooks, although you’ll have to be lucky with a table. It’s a lovely open kitchen where they cook trad meals to take-away but also have 3 or 4 tables where you can sit and eat whatever they’re cooking today while you watch them cook it.

Tea-time for me would be Metropolitan Cafe, inside the nifty Bloomsbury shop. Their cakes have “naughty” written all over them; icing is thick, filling ooze out, the cakes are slightly misshappen, mmm.

Pre-prandial cocktails? Try Sub 13, under an eatery on George Street. Blinding julep, some good inventions, and a terribly tempting 2-for-1 happy hour(s).

For dinner you could do worse than enjoy some old-school brasserie cooking at Woods. Very traditional, very unchallenging, very un-foodie. A useful antidote to all the raging modernity, and I always feel very relaxed on my occasional visits there.

Review: The Pony and Trap, Somerset

The Pony and Trap came as a bit of a surprise when we bundled in out of the rainy car park this evening. I’m used to Michelin-starred pubs being of a particular style. Still pubs, sure, but very much the kind of public house where the squire and the landlord might meet up for a drink and a roast while discussing the Enclosures Act. The Pony and Trap is much more the kind of pub where the farmer and the farrier might come to discuss the damned (beggin’ yer pardon) landlord. We felt cosy.

Bread and olives were good. My starter was a quail leg on celeriac puree with crispy bacon, pear and chicory. The quail was very nicely cooked, but the presentation of the dish was at odds with what were quite rustic elements; bits of pear, bits of chicory. Maureen’s starter was devilled duck liver and heart, and it was exactly that, on a good slice of sourdough toast. Nice and fiery, and no attempt to look anything but rustic.

For main I had a big piece of brill, perhaps just over-cooked, on top of confit chicken leg and purple sprouting, with a brown shrimp butter. I definitely applaud the seasonal sensibility of the dish; it’s hard to get a fish dish feeling properly autumnal. But overall nothing leapt out at me about it, nothing wowed me in the cooking or the plating. Maureen’s dish was pork two ways: successful and unsuccessful. The success was a marinated fillet, which was dense and pink and utterly chewsome. The unsuccessful was a pressed pork belly; for both Maureen and me the fat was still too obvious, white and fatty throughout.

Alongside our mains we got a dish of mixed veg, boiled al dente, and some potatoes. And this perhaps pinpoints the trouble I’m having reviewing The Pony and Trap with an open mind. Because it has a Michelin star, and so I keep catching myself judging it against Michelin standards (or rather, what I’m used to in a Michelin-starred restaurant). Our meal, including 2 glasses of wine and 1 dessert shared between two, was about £60. Surely at that price-point a side dish of boiled veg should be acceptable? Maybe. But I can’t help recalling the lovely honey-roast carrots and creamy cauliflower cheese we had with our £10 roast at Cavendish Cooks the other day. Or the three course lunch with amuse bouche and pre-dessert at The Crown, Whitebrook which was elegant and accomplished throughout and barely £5 per head more.

Chef Josh Eggleton sets out his stall as a 100% focus on local and quality produce, which is worthy (though hardly original). And if you live near Chew Magna or are holidaying in the Mendips then you’ll certainly appreciate having the Pony and Trap as a local. But while nothing was bad, none of our plates were exceptional, none of them opened our eyes to anything new, and none are likely to stick in the memory in years to come.

I guess Josh might see a few more reviews like this, caused more by the accolade of the Michelin star and people’s expectations of what that means, rather than by any fault in his chosen style of cooking. Fact is I’ve had plates as good and better in other dining pubs that haven’t had a sniff at such a high accolade yet. The Michelin man has left me confused again. I can only assume he was seduced by the sheer pubby-ness of it all – I can see him using the words “authentic” and “honest” abundantly in his review.

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