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Kaff Bar, Brixton

 po'boy

Brixton is considered the Deep South of London by those who don’t cope well without a Tube line, but little do they know that there’s a real taste of the South in SW9. There’s a new Louisiana chef in town and he resides daily at Kaff serving up Cajun and Creole inspired food with a taste of the bayou.

Richard Myers found his niche on Atlantic Road a few months ago and the already tasty food at the bar has gone from strength to strength since. Arriving in Brixton almost by accident, he fell in love with the market and the attitude to food here finding it more like New Orleans than anywhere else he’d been outside of that famed city.

Originally published in the Brixton Bugle… Read more

Wishbone, Brixton

The long awaited fried chicken joint Wishbone Brixton has been positioning itself to be the big daddy of the current ‘dude food‘ craze sweeping London with its dirty burgers, pulled pork and deep fried sides. For some reason London’s favourite fried chicken hadn’t really been touched by the trend to take takeaway style food to a proper table and treat it to a night out. Promising something cooler than Nando’s and a lot higher animal welfare with free range meat, Wishbone has finally opened in Market Row after teasing everyone with the promise of finger licking fun.

Originally published on Brixton Blog…

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Tapas to light up your life: El Gato Negro at Guestrant

Electrik black cat 14

Hoary old blues crooners and popular folklore alike state it’s bad luck when a black cat crosses your path. I don’t know if this adage holds firm in Spanish, but after a night of superb tapas from El Gato Negro’s Simon Shaw, I’m prepared to guess not. Lady luck and her helpers in the kitchen ensured that the inaugural Guestrant of 2012 was a resounding success.

Electrik black cat 3

Despite January being seen as a quiet month, there’ve already been a slew of great food events to choose from in Manchester, including Gastroclub at Room, JoinUs4Supper at North Star Deli, and then Guestrant announced they’d be bringing El Gato Negro to the Electrik Bar in Chorlton. Having enjoyed Guestrant on several occasions in 2011, it was an opportune time to re-engage with this great watering hole in south Manchester for some quality school-night dining.

Despite it being the same night as my debut TV appearance, it didn’t take long to decide that curiosity to view my gawping visage on the goggle-box would be comprehensively trumped by the chance for some superb Spanish fare from one of the best tapas joints outside of London.* El Gato Negro is one of Calderdale’s, and indeed West Yorkshire’s culinary gems. Chef/proprietor Simon Shaw has made his mark on the county and further afield, and over the years has steadily built a reputation on a sympathetic balance of innovation, tradition and flair, with a few appearances on national TV to raise the profile of the restaurant further.

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From parlour to table: what makes a great cookbook?

Parlour Café Cookbook spread

What is it which turns a cookbook from being something which we merely reference and use, to something which instead we cherish and revere?

Is it the look and feel of the book itself: how it feels in the hand or lies on the kitchen table? Is it the cadence and character of the author’s writing; the photographer’s eye for detail, or illustrations which bring the writing to life? Or is it perhaps the core attraction of the book: the recipes themselves. How good are they; how easy are they to follow; how confident do they make you in being able to achieve something new and exciting?

I love how we can build up close, loyal and loving relationships with some cookbooks: they draw us in, distracting and tantalising; beckoning and beguiling. They may act as good companions on lazy Sunday afternoons, keep us up reading at bedtime, shape our shopping habits, push us to try new techniques, and open new doors with attitudes and concepts. The relationship one builds up with a good cookbook is so personal, and almost intangible… we can all think of certain books which we really love.

Both Miss South and myself have an ever-growing selection of cookbooks which we consult, covet and collect. We grew up surrounded by cookbooks from luminaries and little-known authors alike, lucky enough to have bookish parents with a penchant for collecting recipes and expanding their repertoires. Both of us have carried that interest through to our adult lives, hence groaning kitchen shelves and well-thumbed tomes which’ve found a place in our hearts. Of course, we also have our own notebooks too; full of cuttings, tearings and recipes passed down from family and friends; but the cookbooks on the shelves are what we both go to first.

Recently I’ve been thinking more than ever about what makes a good cookbook truly great, looking from both a consumer and a producer’s perspective. Keen-eyed readers may recall that, during the summer, I highlighted a couple of great recipes from a cookbook which I’ve been involved with. That book, the Parlour Café Cookbook by Gillian Veal, was launched recently at the Dundee Literary Festival, and it’s been selling like hot cakes (or hot pithiviers) ever since.

Parlour Café Cookbook cover

My involvement started when I was contacted by a prospective client earlier this year, and asked whether I’d be interested in designing and typesetting the inaugural publication from a new publisher, Kitchen Press. The brief was quite loose, but it would involve working with the author and illustrator to convey the atmosphere and ethos of a small café in Dundee. I’d never visited the café or met the protagonists, so everything hung on my initial impressions of the writing itself.

However, after being sent an early draft of the manuscript, alongside some illustrations, I was hooked. I loved the Mediterranean-influenced recipes, the emphasis on homely and local ingredients; the calm, instructive tones; and a quiet confidence in demystifying the art of the kitchen wherever possible. It was fun, personal, down-to-earth… and perhaps most importantly, the recipes sounded truly delicious!

Like any creative, a good cookbook author should excite, educate and entertain their audience. Gillian’s writing is confident and straightforward; informed by her passion and experience, but capturing some of the quirky, personal features of this tiny little café on a steep Dundee hill. Striking a good balance between the wholesome (some super salads and healthy, hearty soups) and the utterly decadent (cake recipes which have been getting even me, the non-baker all hot under the collar).

Just as importantly, the book is visually brought to life by Jen Collins‘ enchanting illustrations. Her quirky line drawings are a delight, and I challenge you to suppress a smile when you see them accompanying the recipes in the book. Despite being a photographer, I was really pleased to work on a book where the decision had been made to focus on ingredients and stories using only illustrations

This, incidentally, is not a book review. Yes, I wholeheartedly admit that I’m biased, having spent time and energy working on this book, so it’s not right for me to attempt to sound neutral and dispassionate. We’re always upfront here on North/South Food about any biases or influences, and my professional involvement in this project is happily admitted. I loved working on this debut book from a passionate, independent new publisher, trying to help make it the kind of cookbook you won’t just like, but will love and cherish.

The best measure of that is how often I’ve dipped into it since getting that initial manuscript… it’s not left the kitchen table in months. My favourite recipes? Well, I’ve not worked my way through the whole book yet, but honourable mentions must go to Parlour Panzanella; Chorizo & Chickpea Stew; Squash, Apple and Ginger Soup; Parma Baked Eggs (above, topped with a tiny homegrown tomato and finished with heavenly ham salt); those aforementioned Rosemary & Anchovy flatbreads and the amazing Puy Lentils and Goats Cheese Salad. I’ve not yet started on the Desserts section, but I’m making the Banana Bread with Coconut and Toasted Nuts soon; and the Parlour Baked Cheesecake is a definite. Along with most of the other recipes in the book…

You can check out a selection of the recipes on their Facebook page, or use Amazon’s Look Inside feature to peek inside the book. As a taster, you can also download a PDF with four of the Café’s most popular recipes on them. Just click on the image below.

Parlour Café postcards

So I hope this post has made you think a little more deeply about what cookbooks you love; and in the meantime, make a suggestion to add another to that favoured list. It might not be possible to go to Dundee for a wickedly good lunch, but now you can enjoy it in the comfort of your own home. Or you could just enjoy curling up in front of a fire on a cold night, feasting on the recipes and supporting more regional food talent…

Delights and tea lights: twice the fun at The Spice Club

As the candles fade after this year’s Diwali, it’s a good time to shine a bright light on The Spice Club in Manchester, one of the best open secrets in the North West’s food landscape. It’s Manchester’s longest running secret supper club, and comes with a sterling reputation. A fortnight ago my regular dining partner and I made it down to the first of two pop-up events in the city centre’s Spinningfields: the second was held this weekend past, and part of me wishes I could’ve been there two weeks running to enjoy the superlative authentic flavours again.

We didn’t have many reference points for Indian cuisine when growing up in Northern Ireland during the 80s. Sure, the family got the occasional takeaway; I had a few good meals round at south Asian friends’ houses; and I remember some home sessions where we made meals with Sharwoods’ finest pre-packed ingredients. Apart from that, our dad’s biryani became a running family joke, largely because it was never served with any sauce so was dry as straw (we think he was missing one half of the recipe and never realised). At the time south Asian food just wasn’t as ubiquitous in Belfast as it was in most English towns, so my first experience of the wider world of Indian food was when I moved to the northwest of England to study.

Diwali candles at The Spice Club, Manchester pop-up restaurant

Hanging out with a couple of beery lads from the Midlands, for whom curry competed with a full Sunday roast when it came to the best choice for a shared house meal, I quickly learned about key ingredient and basic techniques. I got in the habit of easting out at cheap and cheerful curry houses, and when I moved to Manchester (home of the infamous Curry Mile in Rusholme, as well as some great little joints in the Northern Quarter) my education broadened further. I’ve eaten out a lot over the years in Manchester, but two restaurants really made an impression on me for a range of dishes which they offered up; Gaylord, and the sadly-missed Shimla Pinks. Both contradicted the usual restaurant fare by serving fresh dishes with incredibly distinctive flavours. This was the kind of Indian cooking which I could really connect with, but I was more likely to get it cooked by knowledgable friends than when I ate out. Garishly bright sauces, suspiciously-similar looking curries, oil slicks spreading across balti dishes, sickly-sweet dessert options… I knew there was more to Indian food than this, but even in a city with so many choices for eating, it was surprisingly uncommon to find oneself tasting fresh ingredients in the way one would take for granted with, say, Thai food. Surely something was wrong here?

This brings me, in a roundabout way, back to The Spice Club. I’d met Monica Sawhney, the prime force behind Manchester’s first secret supper club, at a couple of events early this year. Her obvious ability to combine advocacy and enthusiasm for quality Indian food was apparent… and infectious… so I was determined to check out The Spice Club when I could. Over the next couple of months I heard more glowing first-hand reports, which cranked up the anticipation, but I always seemed to have something already in the diary. As a result, when I decided to go to the South Indian food special at the beginning of July, my dining companion was most miffed,as she already had plans and couldn’t make it. I smacked my lips with anticipation and signed myself up anyway, keen to check out some Keralan cuisine. After booking through their website and receiving a confirmation email, the next stage was getting a text messgae on the day, revealing the location. As I was going alone I decided to drive – public transport from the depths of the Pennines to the balmy suburbs of north Manchester is a convoluted option – so I was one of the few sets of guests who didn’t BYO.

After a drive over th’hills on a beautiful summer’s evening I arrived at what was very obviously a family home: perfectly appointed but with an atmosphere which thankfully said relaxed dinner party, not mini-restaurant. This vibe, plus the warm and friendly greetings from Monica and her mum Anita at the door, was a perfect statement of intentions. Escorted to my place, I joined a dozen or so other people at one of two large tables. Chatting around before food was served, the diners seemed to come from a wide range of backgrounds and levels of food interest. There’s alway a good frisson at a supper club: a range of dining companions, united by a common interest and shared anticipation of what’s to come. The buzz around the table grew over glasses of fruit juice, before Monica came out to welcome us and introduce the meal. The Spice Club’s manifesto is to let their guests experience and enjoy fantastic, authentic home-made Indian food, and to be as open and welcoming as possible. Including, rather bravely I thought, inviting anyone who wanted to pop into the kitchen to see behind the scenes.

Our first course was Masala Dosa, a wonderfully light dosa (a thin pancake), rolled into a cone and filled with delicately spiced potato. This was wonderful in its own right, but was taken to another level by the wondrous coconut chutney on the side. On a warm summer’s evening this was such a perfectly cool, soothing and fresh condiment, and I made sure to take advantage of it. Not that the food that night needed a cool touch to temper savage spices: if you’re looking to carry out any random acts of chilli masochism, this isn’t the venue for you, it’s all about balancing the distinct fresh flavours of the spices and ingredients in harmony.

After this, our plates were cleared away, and a series of entrées made their way onto the table. Each plate had an individual bowl for the sambar, and plenty of space for the accompaniments. Glancing at my menu, I couldn’t help think the next course had a touch of the Julian & Sandy‘s about it – “ooh, did you vada those steamy idlis down the sambar?” but that says as much about my humour as my relative ignorance of south Indian food…

Idli at Spice Club Manchester

I’d never had idli before: delightfully cute steamed rice and lentil cakes; nor vada, light crispy rice and lentil fritters, delicately spiced and perfect for scooping up sauce. Or beer snacking, I’d warrant. There was a toor dal sambar, piquant and fresh with spiced onion, garlic and ginger; and Pau Bhaji, a selection of veg in a rich tomato-y masala. Little vegetable bhajiis and plenty of chapattis completed this main course.

The presentation is uniformly excellent too… each serving is delicately detailed without being overly fussy. However they obvious know their audience: neatly plated dishes empty quickly but a succession of refills, top-ups and temptations ensure that no-one leaves the table hungry in any way. There’s a touch of that Scots-Irish “Ahh, go on and eat up, you’re at yer Grannys” about the smiling countenances which pleasantly persuade you to have just one more thing…

Curious about the dishes we’d enjoyed, I took up Monica’s opening offer and went for a nosey in the kitchen. Anita was more than happy to show off the ingredients, talk about exactly how to cook them, and how much they all enjoyed hosting Spice Club. All in a kitchen which looked spotless… you get the impression this operation hums and ticks like a well-oiled machine (and that’d be olive oil, not ghee as you might expect… Spice Club aren’t afraid to update traditional elements with healthier alternatives… so no worries about unhealthy greasy curries).

Thankfully after the generosity of the previous courses, dessert was light and fresh – a strawberry and mango sorbet – just right for a warm summer’s eve to cleanse the palate. Then we were offered cardamon tea or a coffee (I went for the cardamon tea) and a selection of cake and biscuits. Despite feeling a little like one of those cartoon characters, when my eyes should’ve registered ‘Full’ signs, I still managed to enjoy more of the biccies than good sense would allow. They’re naan kithai, a kind of cardamom-y shortbread, and boy, they’re seriously good, which I why I’ve linked straight to Monica’s recipe for them.

Spice Club - cake and naan kithai

Many things made the evening special, but more than anything else I took away the impression that this was something which Monica and her family really loved to do: bringing together people for an insight into great regional home-cooking, with wonderfully warm hospitality. Which, I may say, they did with ease. My better half was even more jealous after she’d heard about the evening, so when we heard The Spice Club was branching out to a pop-up restaurant in central Manchester for two weekends, she quickly determined we’d go. I needed little persuasion…

Looking over the Diwali pop-up restaurant by The Spice Club, Spinningfields, Manchester

After wandering around the shiny glass canyons in Manchester’s gauche new quarter, getting slightly confused by the multiplicity of RBS banks (which threw us, based on the directions we had) we found a corner unit, twinkling with hundreds of candles to set the mood for Diwali. The location was a unit which I believe had been a sandwich bar (the decals on the windows still advertised wraps and salads). As before, the table decorations were beautiful, and they’d managed to inject some homely personality into the space. I popped open one of the bottles of the ever-delightful Meantime IPA which we brought along (a big, strong, fruity, hoppy beer which is absolutely perfect for a spicy meal) and we talked to our dining companions. It turned out to be a small world – I was sitting next to a lady I’d last met at the Spice Club during the summer – so obviously we’d both rated it highly enough to plan a return visit, this time with our partners.

Aloo Tikka Chaat - Spice Club, Manchester

After Monica came out of the kitchen and introduced the evening, we were presented with a lovely appetiser: Aloo Tikka Chaat. A dinky potato patty, topped with chutney, yoghurt and a tangy sweet tamarind sauce, together with chickpeas and tomato. Small, but perfectly formed, this set the pace for the rest of the evening with its fresh flavours and perky presentation. Really good. It was only after I’d left the July Spice Club I’d realised the whole evening was vegetarian. This time our entrées had a more meaty bent, but as with so much good Indian cuisine, veg and pulses played a critical role. Roasted chicken Masala was a million miles from its namesake in most restaurants, being melting succulent and thrilling warming; the Shahi Keema Mattar paired the classic minced lamb with peas and spices perfectly. The dal, made from moong and channa, and lobia (black-eyed beans) was as good as anything I’ve ever had before, and the Gajjar ka Raita, a carrot raita added a dash of sweet coolness. How come I’ve never had a carrot raita before… it’s genius!

Entrées at Spice Club pop-up restaurant, Manchester

However the real revelation of the night for me was the Paneer Bhindi. I’ve had okra (aka the slightly creepily-named ladies fingers) before, but was not impressed by its somewhat slimy texture. Likewise, though I’ve had paneer in dishes before, when I’ve tried to cook with it at home, it’s left me thinking it’s like a blander cheese cousin of tofu. That’s aching bland. So I was tentative in trying out the paneer bhindi when it appeared, but I had seconds, and even thirds (yes, that policy of death by kindness and generosity was in full effect again, with all the diners plied with multiple helpings of everything from chapattis and rice to main dishes). When I confided that I really didn’t like okra beforehand, I given the tip that it’s often best to overcook it to reduce the mouthfeel which I’d been so unenamoured by. I’m going to be following their recipe for Paneer-stuffed Okra soon…

Kheer - dessert at the Spice Club, Manchester

In between courses, despite there being more diners than usual, service was swift and good-natured, and we even had time to take tips and advice from Anita and Monica as they talked to everyone. We needed a little time to let the main course settle, so easy conversation and good banter was in order. Dessert was Kheer, a sort of grown-up rice pudding, with enough sweetness to lift it without being cloying, and just enough bite to the rice to elevate it above a mousse or blancmange-like consistency. All with a glowing hint of cardamom and a drizzle of mango. Lush.

Cardamom tea was then served alongside those cracking Naan Kithai again, and a slice of the Diwali cake which I think Monica mentioned had been brought along by one of the guests. We also each had a barfi, which again confounded my expectations by being much less sickly-sweet than the versions I’ve had before in sweet houses. The whole evening was a delight: wonderful food, of course, but also a great atmosphere.

This is very much a family affair: Monica fronting the whole operation, with full culinary direction from mum Anita, assistance from brother AJ and dad Jee, and close support from Vik. They’re so obviously proud of their culinary heritage, and determined to reclaim that food background from the identikit coloured curries most of us have been all-too-familiar with.

Monica from The Spice Club

The Spice Club run a series of events every month: having experienced two I’d have no hesitation in urging you to sign up for one of their forthcoming nights. The location might be a mystery, but the authentic tastes, and true deliciousness is guaranteed!