Thursday 26 February 2009

My Fave local eatery, Irma's - Leigh-on-Sea

Irma's is a truly great local restaurant, in fact it's my favourite.....imagine a Pizza Express, (In my opinion, as far as chains go, Pizza Express is fantastic.) but completely Independent of corporate shenanigans.....that's Irma's.

I've eaten in there countless times, and each time the food has been great. The menu consists of all things Italian, but it's the pizza in the thin Rome style that's the main draw.
And some draw it is. Irma's is consistently packed. I drive past it often and it's always busy, and that's a great indicator of how good the place is.

In fact, I've eaten there so often, I've settled on my favourite menu selection and nowadays order the same pizza again and again.
"Salsicce" - which consists of the standard tomato base, Mozzarella, sliced Italian Luganega sausage, Red Peppers, Fennel Seeds and Basil. Gorgeous.
(On a related note, you can purchase Luganega Sausage from Gazzano and Sons in the Farringdon Road, London.) but I digress....

For dessert, again - I always opt for the same....homemade ice-cream in a shot glass, Amaretto flavour at the almost obscenely cheap price of £1.50.....yes that's right £1.50!!
When was the last time you ordered anything in a restaurant for that price?!!!
It's lovely stuff. I can also heartily recommend the raspberry and white chocolate ice-cream.

So that's Irma's, consistently great Italian food, nice buzzing atmosphere and really reasonable prices.
But there's more.....

If you fancy moving on for perhaps a bit of drinking after your meal - exit Irma's - turn left in the corridor away from the main entrance- and you'll come to an unmarked door with a voice entry system, buzz and politely ask to be allowed entry and unless it's packed out, your in a massive group of rowdy blokes, or you just look like trouble, you'll be given access to the BlackCat Bar.

Now this is a real eye opener, I haven't seen the like outside London.

It's a Milk and Honey'esque private drinking - cocktail lounge, it doesn't advertise and there are strict rules regarding behaviour.....all of which basically boil down to - 'have a really good time, but don't get rowdy or act like a twat.
There are two bars, and the punters are seated in leather booths. There's a private area out the back which can be reserved for larger groups and it's furnished with it's own small bar, and poker tables if your group is in the mood for gambling.

Everyone drinks cocktails, and Simon and his staff know their stuff. Order anything you like, ignore the drinks menu entirely , any cocktail you can think of and they'll make it. To be able to order 'off menu' is more unusual than you think, I'm partial to a Gin Ricky or a Vespa Martini (If I'm feeling particularly alcoholic) and, I've ordered....... and then been asked to explain how to make these drinks by barmen in countless cocktail bars. (Suprisingly, including the excellent Hawksmoor bar, in the case of a Gin Ricky!)

The great atmosphere, the lack of windows, the low lighting the excellent drinks - it's easy to imagine your in some cool hidden bar located in London or Manhattan - but amazingly it's Essex!

So next time your in Leigh-on-sea for the evening, and feel a bit adventurous, book a table at Irma's and book a booth for afterwards in Blackcat - and get rotten drunk......but in a friendly polite way.


9 Elm Rd,

01702 719400

Sunday 22 February 2009

A trip to Brighton....Bills Produce store and The Ginger Pig

Yesterday, having nothing else planned we drove down to Brighton for the day. You must realise that I plan days out with military precison. I research things like which places to visit, where to park, how much does it cost....and more importantly - where to eat.

Too many days out (and trips abroad for that matter) are blighted by wandering from one restaurant to the next, perusing the menu, peering through windows trying to make a snap judgement on whether your going to get heaven on a plate or a cracking case of food poisoning. Therefore I like to know where I'm eating before I even arrive.

Generally, the evening before any trip I can be found scouring food critic reviews, blogs etc compiling a complex list composed of ticks, smiley faces, stars, arrows pointing to choice pieces of information and ad-hoc maps. It no doubt represents to a casual observer the tortured scribblings of a lunatic. But it's a goldmine of info.

Yesterday my scribbled research was time well spent, and I struck the bullseye, not once but twice.

Having arrived in Brighton and parked on the sea-front by 8-30am (I like to get out, and be at my destination early!) The first order of the day was breakfast.

My seemingly scribbled by a child research indicated that the place to grab breakfast in Brighton is
Bills Produce Store a deli come restaurant of warehouse-like proportions with produce of all kinds lining the shelves that run almost the entire length of the building with benches, tables and chairs positioned around the center of the store.

We grabbed a table, and perused the menu. Knowing that I was in for some serious walking later....and with the girlfriend in tow also; no doubt, some serious shopping. I thought I'd better order something substanial from the myriad of breakfast options on offer (From porridge to Smoked Mackerel and everything in-between) - and went for 'Bills Breakfast' - a Full English affair.

My partner (having eyes bigger than her belly) ordered the same.

In seemingly the blink of an eye, two plates of 'Bills Breakfast's were deposited on our table by the friendly waitress along with two cups of excellent coffee.

Under that huge Basil leaf in the photo lurks two toast, two poached eggs, bacon, tomatoes, mushrooms and for good measure some really nice sausages. Now that's what I call a breakfast! and yours for £7-50, which isn't bad at all considering the quality and organic credentials of the ingredients. True to form, my partner couldn't finish hers, and purely in the interest of preventing needless waste - I stuffed the remains of her breakfast as well. Fantastic.

Setup for the day - we wandered the streets and lanes of Brighton - our little bellys (ahem)totally full, I honestly couldn't even think about food until with dusk falling, at 6pm, our minds turned to Dinner.

I'd heard about a Gastro-Pub called The Ginger Pig located in Hove. Not realising it was over two miles away, we walked down the seemingly endless seafront and after an epic journey, on top of walking around all day from 8-30am we practically collapsed through the door when we arrived. But arrive we did - and wow. What a treat!

The interior decor is very nice, and the food is seriously good. Sadly I couldn't get any photos inside, as my camera phone takes awful pictures under 'intimate' lighting conditions, and turning the flash on appeared just a tad too obtrusive dazzling other diners as they ate. I'd be very interested to know how my fellow bloggers deal with this.

An initial nice touch was the carafe of tap water already on the table, to my mind - water is water and the age of diners being fleeced for some ludicrously overpackaged, alpine mountain spring water; that's been hand strained by virgins and then; flown 2000 miles to your table but, is inderscernible to the free stuff that comes out of your tap is so over dahlings.

Foregoing starters (hungry but not that hungry after Bills Breakfast) I ordered a Rabbit, Smoked Bacon and Mushroom Suet Pudding - it came with Champ, and I ordered some buttered leeks on the side.It was quite possibly, one of the best mains I ever eaten anywhere. The suet crust was gorgeous and thin, it was crammed with tender pieces of rabbit and bacon - sublime. I ate the lot and just about stopped short of licking the plate.

My girlfriend ordered the Chickpea and sweet potato curry, and she said it was also very good. (She refused to eat Rabbit, a much loved childhood pet and traumatic memories of Watership Down have seen to that.)

On to Desert - and I ordered from the specials board, Chocolate tart with quince sorbet. My Girlfriend ordered Peanut butter parfait with Praline and Marshmallows. Now, my desert was competent - good even. My girlfriends desert was amazing. Ice cold, smooth peanut butter parfait, with a square of warm spongy marshmallow and a thin slab of crunchy praline. The taste and texture combination was amazing. My partner declared it the best desert she'd ever tasted, and I'm inclined to agree - its up there.

Altogether a really great gastro-pub, intimate, warm and buzzing - fantastic food with an emphasis on local produce. Price wise - not bad at all, my main was £10.50 which is dirt cheap, especially considering it was possibly the best main course Ive eaten anywhere!

So, my gastro pre-planning prevailed once again....into the night we departed Brighton, and drove back home to Essex, smug, satisfied and with me smiling and belching contentedly in my partners direction with the question literally hanging in the air "Does that smell like 'Thumper' to you?"

Bills Produce Store

The Depot

100 North Road


Tel: +44 (0)1273 692 894

The Ginger Pig

3 Hove street



Tel +44 (0)1273 736123

Tuesday 17 February 2009

Milly's Deli - Leigh-on-Sea

Milly's is my local deli, and although I've popped in there now and again to buy bits and pieces (Mainly stunning hand carved ham.) I've never been in there for lunch until Sunday and I have to say - I'm a convert!

I ordered an Alderton ham baguette, with Montgomery cheddar and chutney. My partner ordered a warm goats cheese and chutney pannini.
We washed these down with excellent Monmouth coffee from Borough Market.

The food was really nice, and at around £5 for a baguette/pannini, and considering that you'd pay the same if not more in a Pub for the same thing with nowhere near the quality of ingredients, I'd say its pretty good value for money.

It was quite busy in there, and you know how some places have a pleasant vibe that's hard to put your finger on? well Milly's has that vibe, we could have easily sat in there for an hour or two reading the Sunday Papers.

Whilst paying, I got talking to the owner - and she proudly mentioned all the Cheeses are from Neal's yard in London, and allowed us to taste a few. I love Montgomery's Cheddar, but "Stinking Bishop" is a bit of an acquired taste, I feel I may have to come back to that. She also stressed the local nature of some of the produce on offer, which is really nice to hear.

Milly's Deli is a really nice place for lunch - or to stock up on Cheeses, Olives or Charcuterie etc and as I mentioned in a previous post regarding Brindisa's recently closed Exmouth Market outpost, we need to support our great local Independent shops or lose them. So if your in the area pop in for a look.

Milly's Deli - Cafe
90, Leigh Road
Essex SS9 1BU
01702 474373

Sunday 15 February 2009

Credit Crunch strikes Brindisa.

Whilst walking in Exmouth market on Thursday lunchtime to purchase my weekly treat from the Moro's stall (See Clerkenwll lunch options #2:- 29th January), I was shocked to see an Exmouth Market Institution had closed.

Brindisa - The seller of all things tasty and Spanish has succumbed to the financial pressure and shut up shop for good...(The Exmouth Market branch at least, the Borough Market shop is still open, as are the three tapas cafes.)
What a shame this is.

I never bought much from Brindisa- lunch now and again (Gorgeous Stew), chorizo sausages and bits and bobs. The thing is, I always imagined I'd have all the time in the world to sample the treats on offer. And now my local convenient outpost has gone.
It just goes to show how hard times are for the Independent shops.

So, if you have a local Independent shop that you them your custom - go out and treat yourself (if you can afford it of course!) to a taste of that Gran Reserva Joselito ham or those speciality cheeses you've been eyeing up, before it's too late and all our street scenes are that much emptier and blander.

Brindisa Borough Market.
Floral HallStoney St
Borough Market
London, SE1

Wednesday 11 February 2009

How do I love thee? Let me count the cost....err...I mean ways.

Valentines Day is fast approaching. I know it's a bit of a corporate con trick designed to get us all out there buying tacky cards and presents. My Girlfriend knows it too, we've discussed it and we are as one mind on the subject. (Which isn't to say, she doesn't subscribe to the event on some unconscious I learnt to my cost some years ago.....the casual statement "Lets not buy each other presents or cards" SHOULD NOT be taken at face value.)

So - this year. we've decided to buy each other something small - a token, and have set a price tag of around £20 on celebrating our love for each other.......(perhaps there's a hidden meaning there somewhere.)

I've decided on the classic present of Chocolates, but rather than a box of your finest Dairy Milks....pocketing the change and heading to the pub I've decided to splurge the entire £20 (and the rest) on a box of Fine Chocolates from Chocolatier Paul A Young....a former Patissiere of Marco Pierre White no less.

I hurried down to Paul's Camden Passage shop in my lunch break, and perused the incredibly adventurous chocolate options in awe......Marmite and Stilton with Port being two of the more unusual options.

I decided to pick and choose - and in my haste made mistake #1.

"How Much is a box that size?" says I, pointing innocently to the next size box down from the biggest container.
I was sure he said £18....but I now realise (after paying) he said 18 chocolates....for £25.

Onto mistake #2....
I'm making my selections.....Caramel and Sea Salt (Their award winning bestseller) looks interesting, I pick one up.
"Can I purchase these individually -y'know try one?"
"Yes Sure" the smiling shop assistant replies.
I take a bite - its gorgeous..... "Out of interest, how much are these?"
Now, I'm pretty sure he said "£1.75"
I say 'I'm pretty sure' because his reply was drowned out by my involuntary "Bloody Hell" as I almost spat the half eaten chocolate in his face.

It was really nice though.

I'll let you know what the rest taste like.....if I get offered any.

Paul A Young Fine Chocolates
Camden Passage, Islington
33 Camden Passage, Islington
N1 8EA
Tel: +44 (0)20 7424 5750

Wednesday 4 February 2009

Clerkenwell Lunch Options - Part 3 - Indian Food.

This is part three of my favourite credit crunching, lunch busting, Clerkenwell budget round-up. The first two reviews covered my fave places to grab lunch in Exmouth Market (Namely, Clark's pie and mash and Moro's street stall selling spicy lamb flatbreads.)

But for this review, let's head East towards Old Street and, and turn into Whitecross Street. Apparently Whitecross Street holds one of the oldest markets in London (17th Century) but in recent years it's started to become a bit of a foodie location.
At lunchtimes it's now bustling with street food stalls selling everything from Thai curries and Italian pasta dishes to Mexican burritos. You name the Country, they probably have a stall selling it's food.

Most of the food stalls are there all week, but on Thursdays and Fridays a larger selection of stalls appear selling bread, cheese etc....
It's like a mini Borough Market, it's definitely worth a visit if your in the area.

But onto my recommendation - I've eaten from loads of the places in the Market but regularly come back to "Karuna"

If you get here anytime after 12, you will see a line of mostly Indian punters queueing down the street to purchase their food, which is always a good sign.
For the absolute bargain price of £3-50 you get a 'small curry' a filled to the brim, takeaway style plastic container filled with rice and the three curries of the day, with a choice of chutney on the side.

All the curry choices are vegetarian, and initially this confused me.
I'm a committed meat eater, normally if it doesn't have a hoof sticking out somewhere - I'm not eating it, especially when it comes to curries. But this has been part of my 'foodie awakening' (along with the normal apres age 30 sudden liking for Olives.)

Their curries, vegetarian or not, are stunning - curried okra, green beans, cauliflower - Its all been in there at some stage and I've eaten the lot and loved it.

You can pay a bit more than £3-50 and get bigger portions - but the small option is definitely enough for Lunch, and at that price you cannot go wrong.

Some local Leigh-on-Sea news,

I ate in SS9 Restaurant in Leigh Road on Sunday. Now, I like it in there for a drink, and I have eaten in there before and it was OK. But, on this occasion - it was dire. I ordered Pork Belly - and the fatty, flaccid, un-crisped and no crackling piece of Oinker I was served up was an absolute disgrace at £13-50!. Contrasted with what Helen at Food Stories and Lizzie at Hollow Legs have been cooking recently, it beggars belief that they could serve up such poor grub in a restaurant.

As Anthony Bourdain mentions in the excellent 'Kitchen Confidential' - some restaurants put their trainees and their punished defaulters in the kitchen on a Sunday - saving their best staff for Friday and Saturday night. Perhaps this was the case.
I'll continue to drink in the bar, but I won't be eating in there again.

My other piece of Local news - I wandered down to Old Leigh in the snow on Tuesday, and incredibly, there's a new Pub which has just seemingly sprung out of nowhere!

The Mayflower Public House- seems to be part of the adjoining chip shop of the same name. I poked my head inside and it looked like it had just newly opened, pretty pleasant - roaring log fire, tastefully decked out - very nice indeed. The Food Menu on the table was the chip shop menu.
So Fish and Chips and a Pint within 10 meters of the sea - very nice indeed. Good Luck to them.

Sunday 1 February 2009

Dinner party distress.

I Love cooking......
But sometimes it can be a bit stressful.

Take last night, a small dinner party for four. I'm cooking for my partner's Brother and his Girlfriend.

I've worked out what I'm cooking well in advance - All the recipes will be from Casa Moro, a 'thank you' to my guests as they purchased me the cookbook for Christmas. (Moro has you've no doubt noticed has been a bit of a 'theme' for me recently, the cookbooks are fantastic, incredibly inspiring.)

OK, Everything's in hand - I'm organised, I have a neatly written list and all the ingredients.

Starter - Hummus with Ground Lamb and Pinenuts
This recipe is actually from the first Moro Cookbook, I planned on serving it in a big dish with toasted flatbread, pickled chilli's and a yoghurt, garlic and allspice dip

Main - Beef Tagine with Prunes.
This is from Casa Moro - I planned on serving it with Saffron Rice.

Desert - Pistachio and Almond tart with Orange and Cardamon.
Bit expensive this - loads of Almonds and Pistachio's, but the recipe does say it's for 12 - so I plan on eating the leftovers all week.

On with the cooking - I begin briskly and confidently.
I decide to start with the desert as the pastry base can be made in advance and frozen.

This promptly goes completely pear-shaped, my 'pastry' which I need to "Form into a flat disk" has the consistency and stickiness of wallpaper paste, I get it everywhere - all over me, the walls and every kitchen gadget within reach....finally, more from instinct than any real 'know-how', I decide to add more flour to 'thicken it up' and it appears to come together.

The next step is rolling it out to line my tart tin - it crumbles to pieces - no matter what I do, cracks appear in it, my casual bonhomie with my partner has now been replaced with curt irritable snapping, she wisely retires from the kitchen....a bead of sweat appears on my brow.
After 3 or 4 goes - I get the tart tin lined. It looks OK.

Time to Blind Bake it.
What can go wrong here? Nothing apparently, until I remove my baked pastry case from the oven - and manage to tear a hole I could get my thumb through in the bottom of the pastry, right in the middle.

My partner meanwhile is scurrying around the place, avoiding me and tidying up in preparation for our guests. Later she tells me she knew something wasn't going quiet right from the "Howling and cursing 'For F*cks Sake' and making other noises of distress" - she stays out of the kitchen.

I decide that the thumb sized hole will be covered by the filling, a paste made from Pistachios, Almonds and Orange. I can get over this setback.
Lets crack on and make the paste - on checking the recipe, I realise to my horror I've misread the amount of Pistachios I need - 300g not's almost 5pm - I mutter more curses under my breath, grab the car keys and tear off down the local shop to try and find some more Pistachios - the small health food shop have them, but they're three times as expensive as the ones from the out of town Supermarket, with no time to lose I have to purchase them.

This tart is costing me a fortune.
I pray to God neither of my guests has a nut allergy.

I stride purposefully back through the door and pick up where I left off.
Grind all the nuts, butter and Cardamon together - by the time Ive got this lot in my little food processor (Oh for a Magimix) I can just about get the lid on.
I decide that it will decrease in volume when its ground up - so I can get the orange juice and egg yolks in. Right now it's looking doubtful.
I grind away - and instead its somehow doubled in volume and comes spilling out when I take the lid off.
I decide I have to make the paste in two batches, which is fine but obviously takes twice as long.

The four hours or so I allowed myself before my guests arrive has disappeared in the blink of an eye - I have just over two hours left.
I haven't got the tagine on - I haven't made the hummus, the worktop is littered with seemingly a thousand ingredients. Everything is spattered with 'wallpaper paste pastry'
I decide to start on the alcohol early, and grab a Peroni out of the Fridge.
The next two hours pass in a blur.

My tart comes out looking good. My Tagine is simmering away nicely, my hummus and ground lamb is plated up and covered with tinfoil.

They'll be here in 10 mins - I haven't had time to shower or change, and now I won't have time.

I decide to have a quick wash, sort my hair out, squirt of aftershave and change my top.
That's all I have time to do.
My partner on the other hand has managed a bath, her two hour hair washing ritual and has had the time to model a choice of outfits in front of the mirror.

The guests arrive, they're starving - the cooking smells "Lovely" -
I hit the booze a bit harder.

We sit down and it flows well - the food comes out on time, it's pretty good, especially the starter and the Main, I'm not sure about the tart - it's nice, but the flavour is very unusual and it's quite dry - needs some ice-cream on the side perhaps - I'm quite critical of my own cooking, I guess everyone is.

My guests compliment me on the cooking "How do I make it look so effortless?"
In response, I smile knowingly and wonder why the hell I put myself through this.