It’s all about the pig

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I reckon I could spend a good few weeks exploring the restaurants around Exmouth Market and I still wouldn’t have been to them all. It’s a serious foodie destination and I won’t deny that I love it: chilled, cool, unpretentious and authentic. I mentioned the Quality Chop House recently, we’ve been to Moro, albeit some time ago — so in the interest of fairness, we decided that we’d try a few others.

First on the list was a rather attractive looking Porchetta bar / restaurant right on Exmouth market from where, one gloomy midweek lunchtime, I decided to bag a fantastically great takeaway porchetta sandwich . At the time I didn’t realise that is was a ‘proper’ restaurant but the sandwich was bloody lovely all the same. Heaps of well seasoned pork with salsa verde in a chewily fresh bun. Oh my god it was lovely. The lunchtime trade is seriously competitive on Exmouth but I thought it was up there with the best I’ve tasted, even though I do fancy myself as a dab hand at the old Porchetta.

So when Mrs D and I decided to have an executive lunch, we headed right there. This lunchtime sandwich  bar, it turned out, was more than just that…it’s a full on dedication to all things piggy: a restaurant called Blackfoot.

Sometimes I’m just a bit dim and I didn’t realise at the time whose restaurant this was. Blackfoot was  founded by TV food celeb Allegra McEvedy along with Tom Ward (both ex Leon bosses, which is A* in my book)…but you could just tell someone amazing was behind the cooking, even from the simple elegance of their humble pork sandwich.

The front of the restaurant pays homage to its origins as a pie and mash shop (no, I’ve still not tried P&M yet if you’re wondering) and there are more traditional tables in the rear. The menu is super simple and the service is warm and welcoming. Our waitress studied in Leeds , recognised our accents and we had a lovely rapport.

We weren’t really in the market for a blow out lunch so Mrs D opted for pulled pork tacos and I went for the long smoke pork belly. I know it doesn’t sound like it, but these were quite clean and not hugely stodgy, although the fiendishly good chips to share put paid to any dietary smugness we might be feeling. We washed this down with a bottle of the house white, which was superb value and very good indeed.

My pork belly was smokier than Lauren Bacall’s voice in To Have And To Have Not and Mrs D’s pulled pork tacos defied civilised eating, resulting in a finger-licking good lunch. Chips, black treacle and star anise, salsa verde, pickles, salad all complimented each other beautifully, adding bright flavour and satisfied grins to our lunch.

We wimped on desserts and vowed for an evening return when we didn’t have to be responsible and talk sensibly to people in the afternoon. Superb.

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Bank Holiday Sunday

Cafe Murano

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Those three words are the most wonderful combination to us Brits. They are the signpost to those of us who work long hours midweek that a long weekend of chilled activities lie ahead and the most delicious thing of all: a Sunday where there are no Monday morning blues to worry about.

May in particular is joyous with a whopping two long weekends to enjoy and we thought we’d make the most of the first one since the weather was so lovely and our dear friends D&G were in town for their first visit to our new home.

Home made asparagus and duck eggs got the day off to a cracking start. The quality of the early, delicate Yorkshire asparagus from our favourite farm in Sand Hutton was a delight and the titanium-shelled duck eggs poached a treat, although our electric hob (that I’ve not got quite to grips with yet) gave me a scare or two re overcooked eggs.

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We had a lunch booking at Cafe Murano, the little sister to Angela Hartnett’s impressive Michelin-starred mother ship in Mayfair. We’d carefully timed our day to allow a leisurely mooch along the South Bank, although the manic tourist bank holiday crowds and a well attended Spanish food festival meant it was reasonably stressful for my crowd averse outlook. But we rocked up early for our table and, joy of joys, we got seated early and the natural order of things was resumed.

We’d eaten here before on a very busy Valentine’s night and really enjoyed ourselves in the  busy Friday night hubbub but the Sunday afternoon vibe was quite chilled and very enjoyable. Our late booking meant we were unrushed and the service was good (not that it wasn’t last time).

Italian small plates are the order of the day here and after much deliberation we each of decided to skip about the menu, ordering different plates of different sizes. It’s the perfect kind of menu for us: we love smaller dishes and more choices. It means more flavour and variety.

Mrs D and I went for frito misto, I added the Lobster linguine followed by the pork belly with clams. The lovely wife can’t resist a good risotto, especially one bursting with spring flavours like pea and mint. The frito misto was light as air, delicately leading the way for the Italian onslaught of flavour. Lobster linguine packed a deliciously fishy punch with an unusually generous amount of lobster meat. The pork belly with peas, clams and romanesco was sticky and comforting without being too cloying. At one point a peas stuck to the bottom of my fork and refused to move, such was the unctuous liquor in the dish. I didn’t want this dish to finish. The cime de rapa (humble turnip tops) accompaniment were bitterly beautiful, the warmth of chilli and the massive dose of iron delivering a real sense of well being — or maybe it was the perfect Gavi by the 500ml carafe doing its job.

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Other highlights from our party included warm octopus with chickpeas and pesto (‘a triumph’), pea and mint risotto with ricotta (‘fresh and lovely’) and squid ink tagliolini with crab and radicchio (‘amazing freshly made pasta’).

Desserts were were admirably resisted but G and I couldn’t resist a vin santo with cantucci biscuits, the ice cold vin santo soaking into the pistachio-peppered biscuits with glee. By now the restaurant was emptying out towards the end of service and we slurped some energy boosting espresso and paid the bill. It’s worth noting that although Cafe Murano is in one of the smartest parts of London (St James) where real estate prices are amongst the highest in London, the chef patron is a Michelin-starred TV celeb, the prices are very reasonable indeed. We averaged £75 per head — but we did have two carafes of very good Gavi — D&G noting that a meal in Leeds earlier in the week wasn’t far off this cost but not at the same quality by a long chalk.

Footnote:

People have been asking me a lot about the cost to eat out in London, since we moved here. It’s true that you can spend a fortune — if you have the money — on some of the best food in the world, after all London is one of the true global cities so it’s to be expected. But I would say that the competition at the mid range level is fierce — and even fiercer at the low end. My conclusion is that If you’re canny, eating out in London can be done at a lower price and higher quality than in cities like Leeds or Manchester.

The truth is, Cafe Murano is a truly superb central London restaurant charging what are essentially Leeds prices. I have a very clear view about who is best served, the diners of the large regional cities in their captive markets, or the diners of London with infinite choice and competition.

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Buttylicious

The Quality Chop House

There is actually a sandwich shop in Leeds called Buttylicious and I take no credit for this ridiculously good play on words. But I did think that the word summed up the lunchtime sandwich experience I had this week when I visited The Quality Chop House food shop in lovely Exmouth Market for lunch this week.

I’ve eaten at The Quality Chop House restaurant before and as a dining experience it was an elegantly simple and high quality experience, so I was expecting great things from their humble sarnie.

In keeping with the trend to open food establishments off the back of a restaurant, the Quality Chop House now has its own superb butchers — the meat looks beautiful, dark with proper ageing and etched with marbling. Next to the butchers there is a well curated deli, serving all manner of lovely things: homemade pies, artisan cheese, home smoked mackerel, wine…anyway you get the picture. In summary: it’s my kind of place.

On the day I visited, I was drawn in by the offer of hot, slow roasted beef sandwiches, freshly carved for £5 a pop. That may seem like a lot, but a fiver seems to be the average price for a street food / takeaway lunch of quality in Clerkenwell where I’m based and usually for this price it’s well worth the modest investment. You can easily spend that in a Pret and it’s a dull and unfulfilling experience.

I wasn’t disappointed — the sandwich was divine. the beef combined beautifully with peppery watercress, dijon mustard and meat jus to create an outstanding sandwich. Monumental even. It was served rare as you like too and it just melted in the mouth.

I couldn’t resist a hot sausage roll (sublime, packed with well seasoned meat) and a handmade lamb family pie for dinner later, which was also wonderful, packed with tender meat and topped with a delightfully crisp crust. I can see myself on first name terms with everyone in this shop before too long!

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Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen

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The nearest restaurant to our new home in London is Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen restaurant. Made famous by the television series over twelve years ago, Fifteen is still going strong tucked away just off Old Street roundabout (or silicone roundabout as its now rather oddly known) in a very cool part of London.

When we rented this flat of course we knew that our local was Jamie’s but that wasn’t the main reason for living here — honest. In fact it is dangerously expensive to have a restaurant of this quality within one minute’s walk from our front door. It’s not that Fifteen is  a costly restaurant per se, compared to London, but like everything else, it does seem to add up!

We have already eaten here three times and the most recent dinner was with the sister who was in town seeing us forth first time since we’d moved to London. We managed to grab a table at the last minute (played the local card) and we took our table on a busy Saturday night over the Easter weekend. The vibe was buzzy and loud on the night we were there, it’s more chilled at lunchtime, but Saturday nights are made for letting your hair down and tonight was no exception. All profits from the restaurant go to the Fifteen Foundation so we can be happy that not only are we having a blast, it’s all going to a good cause too.

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The menu in Fifteen is simple and seasonal, with an Anglo Italian attitude. We opted to share some oysters and a whole rotisserie chicken, which we were told would take forty minutes to cook (it did). We slurped wine enthusiastically — like one does —quaffed the oysters and happily waited for the chicken to turn up. I’m not one for waiting an overlong time for food in restaurants but this was OK actually, if you’re not very patient I’d suggest ordering something else from the menu. The oysters were beautiful, particularly the caramelised shallot pickle and chicken was simply roasted, but came with a peppery salad and summery dressing.

The service was as crisp as the chicken skin (as the sister can testify) and we left feeling very happy with our lot, which is the job of every restaurant I think. I can’t help feeling that we’re really quite lucky to have a neighbourhood restaurant like this just around the corner…

From Po Boys to Pulled Pork and beyond

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Just before Christmas, I was invited to eat at the brand new sister restaurant to The Pit in Leeds city centre, the rather sensibly named Pit Chapel Allerton, due to its location. For those of you who don’t know Leeds very well, Chapel Allerton is about ten minutes drive outside of the city centre and quite an up and coming place, if it’s not actually up and come already.  There are already a number of cool restaurants and bars, one being the highly prized Mexican Pinche Pinche, so it’s well worth the detour if you are in the city.
Back in the day, Chapel Allerton wasn’t always this nice so it’s good to see it grow and the out of town vibe spread with new bar and restaurant openings, the latest of which is The Pit. Pretty much a carbon copy of the Central Leeds operation in terms of branding, design, menu and interior, The Pit is a big restaurant with equally large ambition and clearly they believe that the market is there for them to open here.
It was another ‘getting the kitchen up to speed’ event but this time a lunch table was offered. We paid for our drinks and the food was laid on and it was order at the bar as there was no table service for some reason. No issue, so we ordered from the same menu the Central Leeds restaurant has, which is extensive Americana. I’d been to the original restaurant a few months ago and I have to say was a little disappointed, so was eager to see if there was any difference with the Chapel Allerton outpost.
My lunch companion and I went for nachos and fried catch of the day to get things underway, both of which were perfectly good. It’s all straight forward food here so it’s all about getting the small things right – so far so good. I ordered the half roasted chicken for mains with mac and cheese side and my fellow luncher opted for the very good looking fillet burger, which came perfectly rare as ordered. The chicken came with sweet potato fries and a lip smackingly hot peri peri style sauce which was on the money and still makes my mouth water as I write this.
The menu is very much in vogue  right now and the time is right for burger / rib / nachos / po boys / pulled pork et al – and a particular emphasis on attracting a younger crowd will ensure the success of places like this.
With Schooners of Brooklyn lager to wash it down, this was the perfect easy going lunch and, in my opinion, a more enjoyable experience that the previous meal at the Central Leeds restaurant. Perhaps it was down to the food ordered or the nuances of the individual restaurants, I’m not sure. The service was better in Leeds, but the food was marginally better in chapel Allerton.
I’m sure they will iron out these wrinkles in both restaurants in the coming months, but one thing is for sure, restaurants in Leeds that serve this kind of cuisine will have one eye over their shoulder at The Pit Leeds and Chapel Allerton – there is a lot of ambition and investment here, and I get the impression they won’t settle for second best.

Mrs Atha’s and the best breakfast in Leeds

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A bit of an oversight that I’ve not written about Mrs Atha’s yet. It’s been open for absolutely ages and I’m well behind the curve in terms of up to minute coffee reporting. I’d walked past a few times and made a mental note to find the time to visit, then ended up visiting a few times in a flurry of coffee activity.
It’s worth saying a lot of time and effort has gone into the design of Mrs Atha’s, from the branding to interiors and beyond. I always spot this first up as it’s the business I’m in but I am a big believer in businesses that get this right always get the product right too. Other nice touches like Aesop hand wash in the toilets—the only place in Leeds that does so— tell me there is an eye for detail at work here.
The first time I visited it was a quick coffee and I settled at a table waiting for my friend to turn up, I marveled on how Mrs Atha’s actually makes you feel cool just sitting in it: like you’re in the know, and that’s hard to pull off. It’s also hard to pull off a genuine coffee alternative contender in a city dominated by corporates but Layne’s Espresso, Bottega Milanese and a handful of others have done it, so if you get your offer right, it can work.
I have bemoaned the lack of a genuinely great breakfast in Leeds but with Mrs Atha’s we do have a contender. It’s not your standard full English but a component led version, using Lishman’s bacon and sausage, thrillingly creamy scrambled eggs,delicious sourdough toast and buttered crumpets. Team these up with simply great coffee then we have something really good to get the day started.
The location on Central Street is definitely tucked away, not obvious, and I like that. The place isn’t enormous so does get busy quickly although there are seats downstairs. Food and drink are ordered at the counter and it’s brought to you, which works reasonably well although I’d quite like to see table service but I’m sure there are practical reasons why that’s not possible.
So, lagging woefully behind the bleeding edge coffee hipsters, I can now declare Mrs Atha’s my favourite place for breakfast in Leeds, safe in the knowledge that they’ve probably spotted something new anyway and I can enjoy my flat white and bacon sarnie in peace.
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2013 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 10,000 times in 2013. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 4 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.