Memorable Morsels & Fermented Finds of 2011

I know I haven’t been as actively blogging this year. Lots of things have changed. Our daughter is now one and a half, and I have been eating (and generally spending a lot more time) at home than I did in 2010. That doesn’t mean that I haven’t been traveling and going out to eat – I have, but just not as frequently, and more often at casual places that we can go to together as a family.

I have still made it to my fair share of more ambitious restaurants, just not at such a frenzied pace as in the previous two years. I have also been eating much more near where we now live (in Connecticut) rather than Manhattan – not because it’s trendy to ‘eat local’, but because it’s easier and there is actually an abundant variety of excellent eateries nearby, particularly in ethnically diverse towns and cities such as Port Chester, NY and Stamford, CT. Sometimes, you find the greatest things when you don’t expect to, and these are the best discoveries.

While I still plan to keep writing on this site going forward, beginning in 2012, my words and images will also be appearing in some other places, including the ever-entertaining Arbuturian and the newly launched Bespoke Blog…so look out for my features there. My first piece for The Arbuturian, which recounts a fantastic meal at a vegan Japanese restaurant in New York, can be found here.

But on to the task at hand…

It is always hard to siphon down a year of eating and drinking, but I’ve tried my best to include only those dishes and drinks that were truly memorable. Hopefully I’ve gotten the balance right and you enjoy seeing both some familiar and not so familiar names in my rambling list.

Given what I mentioned above, this year I am also including a segment on the food I have enjoyed eating most at home, which I hope will highlight some of the amazing farmers, growers and restaurants/food retailers we have in the Tri-State area, particularly in Connecticut.

Although much of this year’s list comes from the US (as I haven’t been traveling as much), there a number of entries from the short but hugely enjoyable trip I made to Copenhagen, a longer trip to Italy (including Rome, Umbria and Tuscany) and a brief sojourn in my former home of 10 years, London. I also had some great food during my first trip to Brazil, but somehow none of it made it onto the list.

Sadly, I didn’t make good on last year’s resolution of cooking more often (well, really learning how to cook in the first place). I have my wife to blame (or thank?) for that as she is so good there often seems little point in me trying. But I’m going to make it my resolution again. Maybe I will try my hand at baking since she doesn’t know how to do that. I haven’t checked to see if I have cold hands, but hopefully I won’t get cold feet.

In any case, enjoy the list and, as always, please send your suggestions of new and exciting places I should try.

Here’s to a wonderful 2012 ahead, and thanks for continuing to support me through another great year.

PS – while I haven’t been blogging as much, I am quite active on twitter and, more recently, on instagram (username: ‘laissezfare’), so follow my tweets and picture posts on those channels as well if you so desire. Also, many of the photos below come from my instagram or un-filtered iPhone images, so apologies in advance for the inconsistency in quality.

~ AT HOME ~

For a number of months now, each morning at Chez Laissez begins with a glass of what I have affectionately coined the ‘green sludge’. It is not as bad as it sounds, and is actually quite tasty once you get used to it. It all started when we purchased a great blender earlier in the autumn. The concoction consists of a variety of organic leaves, usually including a mixture of kale, chard and arugula (rocket), spirulina and macca powder and goji berries, with a touch of banana or apple to make it more palatable. The natural and slowly released energy boost is amazing, and it helps to ensure we get a good dose of enzymes to tackle the day. I find I actually don’t need any coffee in the morning now, but since I like it so much I still often have an espresso or macchiato – not a Caramel Macchiato, which ‘doesn’t exist’ 🙂 – once I get to Manhattan.

Morning Sludge

We also recently purchased a very good dehydrator for our home kitchen, and my wife has been making all kinds of healthy and delicious snacks for us over the last few months, which you may have seen me tweeting about. We use only raw ingredients for these snacks (i.e. not heated/pasteurized) so they retain their full nutritive properties. My favorites are the kale chips, for which she makes a variety of seasonings. More recently, she is also making cookies from raw cacao, coconut oil, dates and nuts (cashews and almonds), which are also excellent.

Kale Chips

We don’t eat a whole lot of meat at home, but when we do, we like to know where it comes from and how it was raised. This means we source most of it from local farmers markets.

Some of our favorite steak & eggs

Our favorite beef comes from Four Mile River Farm, which practices excellent animal husbandry and sells dry-aged beef of very high quality at very reasonable prices. We have also bought grass-fed steaks from New York Beef, which is also good.

Four Mile River Farm Ribeye Steak with Brussels Sprouts

We love the eggs we get from Fishkill Farms at one of our local farmers markets. They come from pasture-raised, heritage breed hens that move in mobile coops and their eggs are downright delicious.

Fishkill Farm Eggs & Tarry Market Bread (Tuscan Farm Loaf)

We now buy these by the boatload, and often have them for breakfast with some excellent bread from Tarry Market, which we rate as the best bakery in our area. I have heard that they supply much of the bread to Batali/Bastianich restaurants in the NY area, but have not had this corroborated…they do have a huge facility that takes up a large block in Port Chester. Fishkill Farms also sells excellent organic fruit and vegetables (although they’re not officially accredited), which we buy weekly.

Lastly, one of the best things I ate this year came courtesy of my mother-in-law who just returned to Normandy after a two-week long stay at our home. It was a traditional Norman dish of Poule au Blanc and it was simply out of this world. We bought two old hens from Fishkill Farms and she did the rest. The iPhone picture doesn’t do it justice, but the cream sauce was almost literally to die for. We had this for her 77th birthday.

My Mother-in-Law's Poule au Blanc

Also excellent was a house-made foie gras terrine (mi-cuit) from Restaurant Jean-Louis in Greenwich. We had this with some toasted brioche and a sweet and sour onion spread, which worked great together. The next night, she used the fat from the foie gras to sauté some fingerling potatoes – that was also something to remember.

Foie Gras Terrine from Restaurant Jean-Louis (Greenwich, CT) Paired with 2006 Château Suduiraut

~ ODDS & SODS ~ 

There is a Mexican restaurant named Bartaco near our house that makes you feel like you are on vacation when you dine there during the warmer months of the year. It is on the water and is designed like a beach resort of sorts. Their food is generally good, but there is one dish we always order…strangely enough, it’s a variation on corn-on-the-cob (pardon the iPhone pic). It’s about as good a version as I’ve had.

Grilled Corn with Lime, Cayenne & Cotija Cheese from Bartaco (Port Chester, NY)

Another nearby restaurant we discovered was Chili Chicken in Stamford, CT, which serves Indian Chinese food. Their fried okra dish was addictive as crack (not that I would know) and is the best thing we’ve had from there so far.

Crispy Fried Okra with Onions and Green Peppers from Chili Chicken (Stamford, CT)

I was lucky enough to enjoy some very good pizzas this year, the best of which were in – go figure – Italy. A casual family restaurant in Rome’s Monteverde neighborhood served an excellent Neapolitan style margherita. All the photos from that meal can be viewed here.

Margherita Classica from La Gatta Mangiona (Rome)

At our relatively new family hideaway in Umbria, a local pizzaiolo constructed an excellent meal of at least a dozen different types of pizzas for about 30 people. The standout of the evening for me was the speck pizza, and I also enjoyed the non-traditional dessert pizza with Nutella and peaches. Below, you can see the first pizza he made: just dough sprinkled with sea salt and a touch of olive oil. All of the photos from this meal can be found here.

Pizza Night in Umbria

While on the same trip to Italy, we had an unbelievable lunch at Arnaldo Caprai winery cooked up by Salvatore Denaro, who has to be one of the most jovial chef/hosts I’ve encountered. There were two courses that particularly stood out as being perfect versions of their respective dishes, the caponata and panzanella. There are tons of photos from this lunch, including some funny ones from the kitchen, all of which can be seen on my flickr set.

Panzanella from Salvatore Denaro at Arnaldo Caprai Winery

Caponata from Salvatore Denaro at Arnaldo Caprai Winery

Back in the US, I also had some great sandwich-type foods this year. My new favorite sandwich shop in New York is the Cambodian sandwich specialist Num Pang, whose five-spice glazed pork belly is definitely a standard bearer.

Five-Spice Glazed Pork Belly Sandwich from Num Pang (New York)

Ever late to the proverbial party, I finally had the chance to sample the famous Black Label burger at Minetta Tavern in the latter part of the year. I really can’t think of how it can be improved; it is a thoroughly conceived and rigorously executed beefy affair. Sure it’s $26 but that’s all you need to eat for the meal and it’s both perfect and perfectly satisfying.

Black Label Burger from Minetta Tavern (New York)

My favorite burger closer to home comes from the excellent Burgers, Shakes & Fries. Their meat is a bespoke blend from Master Purveyors in the Bronx (who supply a lot of the famous steakhouses in the Tri-State area) and is really good. The twist here is that the sandwiches are served on ‘Texas Toast’, which in this case is simply toasted bread that has been slathered with butter on both sides. After trying the various iterations, I like the single patty burger with a slice of cheese. The meat does all of the talking and doesn’t need much support. They also serve the best onion rings I have ever tasted.

Double Cheeseburger & Onion Rings from Burgers, Shakes & Fries (Greenwich, CT)

On a healthier note, my favorite food truck for lunch in the City is a rather new Colombian operation that serves arepas. All of their ingredients are organic and meticulously sourced. In addition to the traditional corn base, they also offer more innovative versions, for example one made with quinoa flour, and others with brown rice flour and flax seeds or sesame seeds. My favorite is the quinoa, and I either get it with just hogao and all the fixings, or occasionally a vegan ‘chorizo’ sausage (which is made from soy and comprises over 20 ingredients, including red wine for the color). They are small but if you eat it slowly it fills you up for the rest of the afternoon. Delicious.

Quinoa Arepa from Palenque Food Truck (New York)

 ~ BENIGN BEGINNINGS ~

One of the best appetizers I had this year was seemingly one of the simplest, a burrata from Roscioli in Rome, which is definitely the best version of the creamy cheese dish I’ve had so far. All the photos from that excellent meal are here.

Burrata from Roscioli (Rome)

Along the same lines, the ceviche di spigola (marinated raw sea bass with oil, lemon, onions, chili and fresh coriander) I had at another Rome restaurant – Osteria La Gensola – was vibrant, bright and fresh, the perfect beginning to our meal.

Ceviche di Spigola from Osteria La Gensola (Rome)

Another wonderful light starter came from the most unlikely of places. Spuntino, Russell Norman’s third of five London restaurants in roughly two years, is known more for some of its delicious yet artery-clogging dishes. But the thing I most enjoyed during my meal there was a salad. Possibly this was because it came after a few of those very rich dishes and my stomach was craving greens, but in any case, it was excellent and definitely worth ordering if/when on the menu. My review of the meal can be found here.

Duck Ham Salad with Pecorino & Mint from Spuntino (London)

Another stand-out appetizer also hailed from Italy, although this time from a restaurant in the picturesque hilltop-perched Umbrian village of Montone. During a great meal at La Locanda del Capitano, chef Polito served his own variation on the cappuccino, which included a hill cheese fondue, a quail’s egg and fresh truffle ‘snow’. Need I say more?

‘My Cappuccino’ from La Locanda del Capitano (Montone, Italy)

While in London during the spring, I had the pleasure of sampling James Knappett’s food at the two Michelin starred Marcus Wareing (he now cooks with Brett Graham at The Ledbury), and one dish still sticks out in my mind, both for its beautiful plating and its unique flavors. You can read more about the excellent cold, raw scallop dish I enjoyed here; it really was as pretty as a picture.

Raw Orkney Scallops, Tapioca, Australian Finger Lime, Wild Strawberries, Lemon Vinegar & Thai Basil from Marcus Wareing (London)

The last of the lighter plates to make the list was also a cold plate, served in Copenhagen during a very cold January evening spent within the warm environs of noma. You can read a full description in my review of the meal, but the main ingredient was sea urchins – it was a breathtaking dish. There were many other things from noma that could have easily made this list (including a plate with pine branches and one centered around an intense Gotland black truffle sauce), but this was my personal favorite.

Sea Urchins and Frozen Milk, Cucumber & Dill from noma (Copenhagen)

~ MAGNFICENT MIDDLES ~ 

It is often difficult for the ‘main’ dish, or dishes, in a multi-course menu to stand out as the most interesting of the meal, even if they are delicious in their own right. The preceding procession of nibbles and smaller plates are designed to whet your appetite, inducing you to salivate and preparing you for what is still to come. By the time you arrive at a meat or fish course, the portion is usually more substantial and can often become too rich and/or monotonous to finish. Happily, I had a number of ‘middle’ dishes that rebelled against the odds and still live on in my memory.

One of the best ‘middle’ dishes I had in 2011 came from a meal at Eleven Madison Park that started out great but didn’t finish as strongly (the meal was toward the midpoint of the year, before chef Humm and the General Manager bought the business from then-owner Danny Meyer). It was one of the best-cooked lobsters I’ve had and was completely delectable.

Lobster Poached with Carrots & Vadouvan Granola from Eleven Madison Park (New York)

We had the pleasure of dining at the chef’s table at Heston Blumenthal’s first London opening in the spring, and many of the dishes were excellent. The one savory course that stood out, however, was the pigeon. My wife doesn’t ever like pigeon, and she was licking the plate with this one. Other excellent dishes that almost made it onto the list were the Black Foot Pork Chop and now ubiquitous Meat Fruit. You can read more about the pigeon dish, and the meal as a whole here.

Spiced Pigeon (c. 1780) with Ale & Artichokes from Dinner by Heston Blumenthal (London)

One of the most interesting and delicious main courses I had was actually a vegetarian dish from the Japanese restaurant Kajitsu in the East Village of Manhattan. It was painstakingly plated and stood out for the variety of textures, temperatures and flavors. A full account of the meal can be found here.

Autumn Vegetable 'Fukiyose', Cedar Grilled Yomogi Nama-Fu and Portabella Mushrooms & Komatsuna Oshitashi from Kajitsu (New York)

A diametrically opposed dish, in both spirit and substance, was equally as tasty. This came from the excellent Commerce Restaurant, which is ironically in the West Village, the opposite side as Kajitsu. While it doesn’t often get the press it probably should, Harold Moore is a terrific chef that is both generous to his patrons (he is there night in, night out and actually cares that all of his customers are well taken care of), humble in his manners and genuine in his spirit. His food strives to make you comfortable and satisfied, and it doesn’t pull any punches. Some of the best things I sampled there were his carnivorous sharing plates. My favorite was actually the lamb (and pardon the instagram image below), although the chicken is more fabled, as you can see from this Ozersky TV video. One of his classic American desserts is also included in my favorite desserts of the year…read on.

Rack of Lamb on the ‘Things to Share’ Section of the Menu from Commerce Restaurant (New York)

La Locanda del Capitano makes its second entry with a superb main course of cinghiale (wild boar) that was hunted, killed, prepared and served by the head chef. It was the best example I’ve ever had of wild boar meat, and is worth seeking out if you’re ever in the area.

Montonese Wild Boar Braised with Scallions & Celery Herb Seasoning from La Locanda del Capitano (Montone, Italy)

Last of the top main courses of 2011 was a pleasant surprise from a casual little Ethiopian restaurant in Westchester County, NY called Lalibela, a name shared by many Ethiopian restaurants (indeed, our favorite one in London had the same name). We had a combination platter for two, which was great for lunch.

‘Taste of Lalibela’: Siga Wat, Yebag Wat, Doro Wat, Misir Wat, Shiro Wat & Gomen from Lalibela (Mt. Kisco, NY)

~ SWEET SURRENDERS ~

Although 2011 was a much healthier year food-wise than 2010, I managed to sample a great number of sweet treats which were totally worth the sugar and calories. In addition to some of the staple sweets we stock at home, such as Mast Brothers dark chocolate bars, we found some other great desserts in our local area. These included the best cannoli I have found in the Tri-State area (courtesy of a rapid-fire tour of Stamford, CT with perennially well-informed Jim Leff), wonderful pistachio and dark chocolate gelato from Daniella’s Gelateria in Greenwich, and also Daniella’s hot chocolate.

Cannolo from Sal’s Pastry Shop (Stamford, CT)

Gelato & Hot Chocolate from Daniella's Gelateria (Greenwich, CT)

Some other treats I enjoyed outside of restaurants were from some of the better-known bakeries, including Bouchon Bakery’s classic lemon tart and Ladurée’s traditional macarons, of which the rose flavor consistently one of the best – but all are exceptional. I am glad they finally have a shop in New York, although they may still be working out some kinks, as there seem to be variations in quality from many reports.

Lemon Tart from Bouchon Bakery (New York)

Assortment of Macarons from Ladurée (New York)

A number of great sweets were consumed on our trip to Italy, but the following were my favorite. Unfortunately, I cannot for the life of me find the name of the bakery in Rome from which I had the amazing sfogliatelle. But I have a picture of the lovely man who made them!

Sfogliatelle from Rome…and the baker who made it

Also excellent was a simple dessert of two components from Trattoria da Teo, which serves rustic dishes in Rome’s Trastevere neighborhood. It was so good we ordered a second.

Mascarpone & Wild Strawberries from Trattoria da Teo (Rome)

My other favorite restaurant dessert from Italy also contained cream and berries and came from L’Asino d’Oro, home of one of Rome’s best-value lunch menus. You can read more about the meal here. I didn’t expect much from the description of the odd-sounding ‘Strawberry Tiramisu’, but the proof in this case really was in the pudding.

Strawberry Tiramisu from L’Asino d’Oro (Rome)

One of the most satisfying desserts of the year came from Dinner by Heston Blumenthal, its second appearance in this year’s round-up. It was essentially a brioche and butter pudding with brandy, with the addition of one of the most meticulously roasted pineapples you are ever likely to find. You can read a full description in my review of this meal here.

Tipsy Cake (c. 1810) with Spit Roast Pineapple from Dinner by Heston Blumenthal (London)

My favorite apple pie comes from Mrs. London’s in Saratoga Springs, NY. Wendy (aka ‘Mrs. London’) makes it at the bakery, but also serves it at her son Max’s restaurant next door. The ice cream is homemade too. Both places are worth visiting if you’re even in Saratoga for the horse racing or other reasons. The bakery also serves a very worthy version of Kouign Amann.

Apple Pie & Homemade Vanilla Ice Cream from Max London’s (Saratoga Springs, NY)

One the most surprisingly good sweet things I ate this year came from Commerce, which served the rack of lamb I mentioned above. I have never had a coconut cake I particularly liked, but the name of the dish speaks for itself, and is not incorrect, at least in my own experience. Its moniker is simply ‘The Best Coconut Cake’. While it carries a price tag of $10, it is money well spent. Sadly, I don’t have a great picture, but you can get the general idea from the image below. It has the perfect consistency and is not overly sweet, the main problem that affects most examples of this cake.

‘The Best Coconut Cake’ from Commerce Restaurant (New York)

As a testament to the fact that great things often come when you least expect them, one of the best key lime pies I’ve had comes from a small steakhouse chain whose Boca Raton, Florida branch I visited twice in the last 12 months or so (the other location is in Boston). It was just as good on both occasions, the secret being that they (of course) use real Key limes and also make a delectable graham cracker-esque crunchy crust. If you ever go, their bone-in filet mignon is pretty darn good too.

House-made Key Lime Pie from Abe & Louie’s (Boca Raton, FL)

As it is getting cold now, I am reminded of a part-frozen dessert I had while in Copenhagen. It was my final course at Kødbyens Fiskebar, which consisted of sea-buckthorn as both a grainté and gel, with a base of crème made from tonka nut and white chocolate. The tart and creamy contrast was perfectly judged. You can read the full description here.

Sea-buckthorn as Grainté and Gel, Crème with Tonka Nut & White Chocolate from Kødbyens Fiskebar (Copenhagen)

~ FERMENTED FINDS ~ 

Most of the wines listed below are not particularly pricey (though all is relative), so I particularly enjoyed discovering them as I can afford to buy them again in the future. There were a few precious – in both sense of the word – bottles that I enjoyed on special occasions, but these were mostly the exception this year.

Now that I have a proper wine storage solution, thanks to the impressive Liebherr unit that arrived on my birthday courtesy of my generous parents, I have been buying a lot more wine as of late. I have also found that I’ve been buying a lot of my wine online, through excellent new sites such as Lot18 (click here to join, it’s free). There are also a number of excellent wine merchants I frequent, including Zachys, Sherry-Lehmann, Chelsea Wine Vault, Tarry Wine Merchants (which adjoins to the aforementioned Tarry Market) and the extremely competitively (online) priced Rye Brook Wines. Frankly Wines is also a great little shop, but I rarely get downtown to visit. 

Sparkling 

  • N.V. Claude Genet Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru
  • N.V. François Chidaine Montlouis-Sur-Loire
  • N.V. Jacques Lassaigne Champagne Les Vignes de Montgueux Blanc de Blancs
  • N.V. Jaillance Crémant de Bordeaux Cuvée de l’Abbaye
  • N.V. Pierre Gimmonet & Fils Brut Blanc de Blancs Premier Cru
  • N.V. Pierre Moncuit Blanc de Blancs Grand Gru Oger
  • N.V. Scharffenberger Brut
  • 1997 Salon ‘Le Mesnil’ Brut Blanc de Blancs
  • 1998 Henriot Brut Millésimé
  • 2002 Moet & Chandon Dom Pérignon Brut

White

  • 2007 Casa Lapostolle Chardonnay Cuvée Alexandre
  • 2007 Domaine du Chalet Pouilly-Fuissé
  • 2008 Bruno Giacosa Roero Arneis
  • 2008 Domaine Huët Vouvray Sec Clos du Bourg
  • 2008 Nicolas Joly Savennières Le Clos Sacré
  • 2008 Wind Gap Chardonnay
  • 2009 Arwen, Lilleø Vin
  • 2009 Casa Marin Sauvignon Blanc Laurel Vineyard
  • 2009 Evening Land Vineyards Pouilly-Fuissé
  • 2009 Monastero Suore Cistercensi Coenobium Lazio IGT
  • 2009 Paul Hobbs CrossBarn Chardonnay
  • 2010 Arnaldo Caprai Grecante
  • 2010 Cakebread Sauvignon Blanc

Red

  • 2003 A&G Fantino Barolo ‘Vigna dei Dardi’
  • 2003 Paolo Bea Montefalco Sagrantino Passito
  • 2005 Baigorri Rioja Crianza
  • 2005 Bodegas y Vinedos Finca Anzil Toro Vendimia Seleccionada
  • 2006 Yering Station Shiraz-Viognier
  • 2007 Ampelos Pinot Noir Lambda
  • 2007 Barons de Rothschild (Lafite) Médoc Réserve Spéciale
  • 2007 Bodegas Felix Callejo Ribera del Duero Crianza
  • 2007 Clos Du Val Pinot Noir Reserve Carneros
  • 2007 Sella & Mosca Cannonau di Sardegna Riserva
  • 2007 Seventy Five Wine Company The Sum
  • 2009 Domaine de Villeneuve Châteauneuf-du-Pape ‘Les Vieilles Vignes’
  • 2009 Venta Morales Tempranillo
  • 2010 The Pinot Project

Sweet 

  • N.V. Josette et Jean-Noel Chaland Chardonnay Vendange Botrytisée
  • 2006 Château Suduiraut
  • 2006 Disznókö Tokaji Aszu, 4 Puttonyos
  • 2009 Domtalhof Rheingessen Riesling Auslese
  • 2009 Hermann J. Wiemer Riesling Late Harvest
  • 2009 Joh. Jos. Prüm Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling Auslese

Beer

  • I am not the world’s biggest lover of, or expert on, beer (by a long shot) but my friend recently introduced me to the Three Philosophers, which is quite nice.

I hope you enjoyed my review of the best bites & sips from 2011 and look forward to keeping you up to date on my findings in 2012 and beyond!

Spuntino – An Englishman in New York (in London)

Spuntino
61 Rupert Street
London W1D 7PW
Website
Map
Note: no reservations, no phone line

  • As the name implies (‘spuntino’ means ‘snack’ in most of Italy), the menu consists of small plates, all of which are priced well below £10, aside from a dish or two
  • You can view all of the photos from this meal on my Flickr

The latest, smallest & funkiest Soho outpost from Russell Norman, Spuntino has a great ambience & is a lot of fun. They have concocted some great cocktails and the food is simple, satisfying & just that little bit different for London. It is a great place to drop by for a drink and/or a quick bite, but you could easily find yourself there many hours later, even if you came alone.

In search of some comfort

I was in London. I was working. It was late. I was alone. I needed food. I wanted comfort.

Soho’s Rupert Street has traditionally offered a certain brand of ‘comfort’, although I wasn’t in the market for that. Luckily, the same street now offers culinary contentment too, thanks to Russell Norman’s third addition to the neighborhood in less than two years.

Continuing the Italian language conceit – his first two restaurants are called Polpo and PolpettoSpuntino is really not very Italian at all, aside from the name and presumably the kitchen’s pedigree. Russell described it to me as a “diner,” although this is diametrically opposed to those shiny aluminum-clad monstrosities that cater to the elderly by day and drunk college students by night, and have at least 30 pages in their menus. No, Spuntino is achingly hip; lower east side (LES) Manhattan hip. It is self-conscious of this fact, yet not in an annoying or condescending way, which is not very LES.

The bustling bar

Despite the efforts of its raised ceiling, Spuntino is a very small space, and easily gets cramped in the evenings. Ajax, the imposing yet soft-spoken restaurant manager who used to run the bar at sibling Polpo and is the progenitor of the creative speakeasy-inspired cocktail menu, informed me that since they opened the doors, it has pretty much been busy the whole day through (they open at 11am and close ‘late’), every day. On my visit, they had been open for about three weeks and he hadn’t had a day off yet.

Spuntino is essentially one large u-shaped bar, which has a beautiful nickel-like metallic finish. There are 24 stools and a long makeshift corridor along the long side of the ‘u’ that leads to a small backroom, which has a table that seats six. When they took over the space from a non-noteworthy Indian restaurant, they discovered original tiles buried deep beneath the plaster. These, as well as the extra feet of space they uncovered above the previous ceiling, add considerably to the charm of the room, as do other countless little design details such as the choice of hanging lights.

At night, the place is dark, the music is a slightly loud and infatuating collection of mainly American classics, and it is populated by the type of people who tend to know about cool things before others do (present company generally excluded). The staff all seemed to be tattooed somewhere or other, and almost in spite of their appearances also tended to be very professional, especially given that their computer system had broken down on the night of my visit and all the tickets had to be done by hand.

As I was dining solo, and as the bar has an even number of stools, I was seated straight away despite the hulking mass of onlookers who were sipping cocktails and waiting for a spot to sit. Score.

Bramerican bites

As with Polpo and Polpetto, the menus are printed on a stylish thick rectangular piece of paper that serves as your place-mat for the evening. The food is somewhat of a mish-mash of things (sort of like a diner, I guess), but everything sounds appetizing and much of it seems downright naughty if you have any airs about being at all healthy. But this was fine. Given the day I had just had, and the week I was about to, I felt the need, the need for greed.

Sazerac cocktail

Before consuming any food, I decided I should try one of their cocktails, which all sounded interesting. My initial tipple was the Sazerac, which was poured from a silver teapot into a beautifully engraved antique silver teacup – cutely in-keeping with the prohibition-era theme. There was no getting around it, the drink was d*mn strong. In addition to the main ingredients (Sazerac rye whiskey, Peuchaud’s Bitters, lemon peel and definitely some kind of sweetener), it apparently contained a splash of Absinthe as well, so I knew this was going to be a walk on the wild side. Though it was strong, it was deftly balanced, and I enjoyed sipping on it – as I would a cup of tea – while perusing the familiar-looking menu that was full of unfamiliar dishes.

Mug o’ Popcorn

After ordering, they brought me a mug of complimentary popcorn fresh from the little machine they have behind the bar. It seemed sort of incongruous, but the Absinthe was kicking in, so I really didn’t mind.

In yet another social media coincidence, it turned out I was sitting next to someone I follow on twitter but had never met in person, the writer of the beautifully written and carefully considered blog Twelve Point Five Percent, @HRWright. His glamorous companion, who I later realized was @mrstrefusis, informed me that, for her, the food at Spuntino was really there to soak up the potent cocktails, and I think she may have had a point. Thank goodness for everyone that food began manifesting in front of me before I got a second cocktail in me…

Eggplant Chips & Fennel Yogurt

First up was a dish that perfectly illustrated Spuntino’s schizophrenic identity. ‘Eggplant’ (American for aubergine) ‘Chips’ (British for fries) and ‘Yoghurt’ spelled the British way. Despite the cross-cultural spelling, my verdict on the dish couldn’t be clearer: it was great. Perfectly light and crispy, the richness of the chips’ breading and the eggplant itself was balanced by the cool, creamy ‘yogurt’ (I am American so spell that way, except for the occasional unintentional intrusion from Microsoft Word’s spell-checker, which is for some reason permanently set in UK English on my computer). Simple and delicious; ‘nuff said.

Ground Beef & Bone Marrow Slider

I also enjoyed my little slider. Essentially a ground beef meatball, they are apparently cooked in butter and, after they have reached the desired level of done-ness, they mop up the juices in the pan with the soft and slightly sweet miniature buns. The beef itself was a nice consistency, and combined with the remnants of butter and marrowbone, this was a great little bite (or two), with some tang from the pickles steering it away from being too rich and providing some welcome crunch. Nothing life changing, but very satisfying indeed.

Truffled Egg Toast

I had read rave reviews of the simple-looking truffled egg toast. From what I could make out, this was basically a thick slice of decent crusty white bread that had been hollowed out in the center to make way for oozy orange egg yolk, on top of which had been added a generous layer of cheese (which was either all or part Fontina) and a healthy dash of truffle oil. There was a very pleasant and distinct resonance from the truffle oil, and the textures all worked. It was nice, but not quite as good as I had expected given the comments I had seen. Maybe I shouldn’t have expected the world though…after all, it is white bread, cheese and eggs.

Polpo Prosecco ‘08

As I was taking a breather, and pondering what to order next, Ajax decided to make me a follow-up cocktail on the house. This was after I had ordered and began drinking a glass of Polpo’s own-label prosecco, which is supplied by Dal Bello from Treviso, and is particularly nice, with the slightest sweetness to it. The cocktail was also very good, although all I can remember about it now was that it was orange in color and sort of sweet and sour. Like my first drink, it was more balanced than I was becoming.

Duck Ham, Pecorino & Mint

I wasn’t quite sure what to order next, but felt that I needed some enzymes to dismantle the deviousness of my first trio of dishes. Ajax strongly recommended the ‘duck ham’ salad. They make their own ‘ham’ by aging the duck for 10 days in the Polpo kitchen. This might have been my favorite dish. It was a really great salad, with a zippy dressing, and the duck itself was divine. The pecorino gave it that little bit of salty and nutty richness while the mint kept things fresh. Once again, simple but excellent.

Peanut Butter & Jelly Sandwich

For dessert, it had to be a peanut butter and jelly ‘sandwich’. The trick here was that the bread of the sandwich was in fact peanut butter ice cream. This was downright delicious, and the size wasn’t too small either. The berry sauce was rich and the heap of crunchy peanuts and toffee made for the perfect topping. I enjoyed every bite. And with this, I offered my sweet surrender.

A diner refiner

While I have enjoyed meals at both Polpo and Polpetto, Spuntino is definitely a bit of a departure. While the décor is roughly of the same ilk – perhaps a bit broodier – and the food is arranged in small plates, it is definitely not Venetian (or for that matter Italian). It is comfort food, up with a twist. This makes it fun, especially when the cocktails are as good as they are.

The little things

Beyond the gratifying food and innovative libations, Spuntino is a vibe, an atmosphere. It is just a really fun place and you can’t help but be in a good mood once you step in from the colorful amusements on the other side of the frosted glass. If I still lived in London, I could see myself coming here a bit too often.

*Note: I have dined at Spuntino once, and it was for dinner*

Spuntino on Urbanspoon

Polpo – Sohopeful, So Good

Polpo
41 Beak Street
London W1F 9SB
Website
Map
Reservations are taken for lunch: +44 (0)20 7734 4479

  • Cicchetti & Crostini £1-2, Bread Dishes ~£4, Meats Dishes £5-11, Fish Dishes £5-7, Cheese ~£4, Vegetables & Salads £3-4, Desserts £2-5
  • For the full set of photos, please visit my Flickr account (Meal 1, Meal 2)

A Venetian bacaro meets Lower East Side Manhattan bar, Polpo has a lovely buzzy atmosphere and relaxed but professional service in the middle of London’s Soho. The food is simple, with most dishes employing five ingredients or less, and is executed very well on the whole, with some real standouts. It’s also not overly expensive if you can reign yourself in from the tempting offerings. I really wanted to like Polpo, and after two long lunches there, am pleased to say that it is a place I really enjoy being at, and intend to frequent in the future.

Getting ready for cicchetti

Having just written about another Soho restaurant that offers good value for money, I am happy to be scribbling about another one which I recently discovered. Somewhat to my surprise, I was not the last London food blogger to visit the rather new and ever-popular Polpo. Indeed, it appeared that a twitter ‘friend’ I had communicated with virtually for some time had also not been (I know, the travesty), and it seemed like an apt time and place for a lunch with @KaveyF, the woman behind Kavey Eats.

I had a lot of preconceived notions and high expectations about this place. Firstly, the response from bloggers that I generally tend to agree with had been decidedly mixed. Secondly, having been to Venice a number of times and understanding the bacari that Polpo presumably purports itself to be modelled after, I was cynical about how well they would be able to carry out this concept in central London, without the ethereal magic of the Venetian canals and architecture. (As a side note, it is quite a neat coincidence that Polpo does happen to sit right beneath the plaque marking the spot where Canaletto, the Venetian painter, lived in London – see photo below).

It may not have Venice’s canals, but Polpo does reside below Canaletto’s plaque

There are very few places in London that offer proper cicchetti (pronounced ‘chi-ket-ee’), and I went to one just after starting this blog, which was a posher incarnation of the concept but wasn’t half bad (just a bit pricey). At their heart, cicchetti are very small plates of simple food that Venetians typically have from anytime in the very late morning through to mid-to-late afternoon at local bars (bacari), and they are normally accompanied by a small glass of wine. From my own experience, they are typically eaten at the bar standing up, or possibly on a stool or outside the bacaro if it is a warm day, maybe overlooking the canal. In fact, the icon that I use for my online avatar is the shop-front of a very nice little bacaro that I happened upon while staying in the relatively quiet and peaceful Accademia neighborhood on my last visit to Venice. It’s mostly frequented by locals and is quite traditional. They sell wine on a retail basis, offer some by the glass and a range of snacks to eat with the small glasses of wine they serve. I love the whole concept and ethos of snacking in Venice, so was hoping that Polpo wouldn’t screw around with the simple and successful formula too much.

Polpo’s proprietor, Russell Norman, was formerly Operations Director at Caprice Holdings (Richard Caring’s dining empire, which continues to expand rapidly…and internationally as of late) and, as such, has a lot of experiencing opening new restaurants and making them successful. He says that his two main inspirations for the restaurant were the bacari of Venice and Manhattan’s Lower East Side, Tribeca and Soho, where he saw a particular type of place to eat and socialize that didn’t exist in London.

The place certainly opened with a bang, and much was made of Russell’s proactive use of twitter right through the time leading up to the opening, and then during the eventual launch of the restaurant. Despite the reservations of some bloggers and critics, I was still excited to see what the place would be like, especially after having looked through the window many times on visits to other nearby haunts – one of my current favorite hang-outs in London is Bob Bob Ricard, which is literally just across the narrow Beak street.

Made for Manhattan?

I arrived at Polpo just about on time, as is my wont. Kavey had already arrived, though, and it turned out she had come prepared. Now I don’t just mean that she had read a few blog posts, reviews and looked at the online menu and therefore had a good idea of what she might want to order. No, the girl had a very large Excel spreadsheet in a very small font size which cross-referenced the dishes on the website ample menu against what some of her trusted bloggers thought of each dish. I was impressed, but also slightly scared 🙂 and we had a good chuckle over it…but it did prove very useful.

Polpo, Inside n' Out

The menus were the place-mats, so we didn’t have to undergo the often annoying wait for menus to be given and explained to us. And I have to say, it all sounded very appetizing.

The menu of the day – loved the font and crinkly brown paper

We asked our lovely waitress how many dishes she recommended ordering and I was slightly surprised at the number of dishes she thought we should have (basically a lot). Having said that, my dining companion was happy to go along with it, and I was eager to taste as much as we could, so we went with her advice of 3 cicchetti and four larger plates.

2008 “Polpo” Pinot Bianco (Valle) & San Bitter Red

For drinks, Kavey ordered a beautiful little red Italian soda drink called San Bitter Red (yeah, you guessed it, from the folks at San Pellegrino) while I opted for a 1/4 liter of their house white (it literally seems to be bottled for them). The wine was crisp, acidic and refreshing, and certainly wasn’t over complex. I realized I had misread the wine list as I actually wanted the one listed below the house wine (a Trebbiano-Garganega white) but couldn’t be bothered to change as the Pinot Bianco was perfectly quaffable. The wine list is relatively short and all Italian, but the great thing about it is that you can have any of them in a quarter or half liter carafe, in addition to the bottle. It’s clever business also, as they don’t serve wine by the glass so probably take a better margin overall.

Our plate of cicchetti

Our plate of cicchetti

The cicchetti arrived and looked appetizing, although I think we were both surprised by how small they actually were, particularly the arancini and grissini. But we didn’t have too much to worry about (literally).

Arancini, Chopped Chicken Liver, Salami & Pickled Radicchio Grissini

My favorite of the lot was the chopped chicken liver, which was spread across a slice of nice crusty bread. It was rich without being overly irony and the texture was perfectly smooth and moist. From what I understand, the kitchen has a general policy of not having more than 4-5 ingredients in most of the dishes, and here this purity worked well, as the prime ingredient (the liver) came through nicely. 8/10.

The arancini were also excellent, nice and crisp on the outside and nearly grease-less. Inside, there was a creamy risotto center, with enough bite left in the rice and what seemed to be a morsel of melted mozzarella, along with some herbs. Although it was only one or two bites, I enjoyed it a lot and could have probably had 5-10 quite comfortably. 8/10.

The grissini was definitely a bit of a letdown by comparison. Firstly, it was truly a paltry portion for £2, and I didn’t think the ingredients worked that brilliantly together. In fact, although the meal wasn’t that long ago, I am struggling to remember what it tasted like. 5/10.

Rabbit, Sage & Apricot Terrina

The terrina was a solid plate of food. The flavors all came together nicely – with the sweetness of the apricot complimenting the slightly gamey richness of the rabbit – and it had a nice spreadable yet chunky texture. It was a good portion size for the price too, and I liked the little side of pickled cucumbers and onions. 7/10.

Fritto Misto

I was pretty impressed with the fritto misto, which is often done very badly. These were not greasy at all, and very crisp. The seafood all tasted fresh, the prawns were sweet and the squid was moist and not at all chewy. It was a lovely little pile of fried fish and, while it doesn’t compare to the real thing in Venice (my favorite is at Ristorante Fiaschetteria Toscana) or even the excellent version of it at L’Anima, it was very good. 7/10.

Pork Belly, Radicchio & Hazelnuts

The pork belly was somewhat surprisingly my least favorite of the larger plates we had. I found the pork flavor to be too strong, but maybe this is just a personal thing for me (?). I understood what they were trying to achieve with the bitter (radicchio) and sweet (hazelnut) combination, but it didn’t quite work for me. The textures and the cooking were good, but I just didn’t enjoy it all that much and have struggled to put a finger on it, so to speak. 5/10.

Cuttlefish in its Ink & Gremolata

The cuttlefish on the other hand was a bit of a revelation. I was always scared of ordering this jet-black dish when in Venice, and when I finally did, it was a horrible rendition that put me off the idea for a long time. I am very glad I braved it on this occasion, as Polpo’s version is superb. I found the sauce to be very delicate despite its rather thick consistency, and the cuttlefish had also been handled with the same care. I found it a bit surreal to be so eagerly scoffing something that looked like a pile of prawn sick District 9 (well, that’s not quite fair, it was ‘pretty’ with the strong black and bright green gremolata contrast, but just not all that appetizing for an uninitiated non-Venetian like me). Anyway, it was a great dish. 8/10.

Roast Potatoes & Rosemary

Another revelation was their roasted potatoes. These were simply and masterfully done, thick and crunchy on the outside, soft, fluffy and flavorsome on the inside, with just the right amount of rosemary hit. A great side of carbs. 8/10.

Flourless Orange & Almond Cake with Mascarpone

It kept getting better from there. The flourless orange and almond cake was one of the best cakes I’ve had in a good while, full stop. It was moist and bursting with flavor, and when eaten in concert with a dollop of mascarpone and a bite of the candied orange peel, it was heaven. I think it was those crispy, candied numbers and thick syrup that made the difference. For me, this was the best dessert you could hope for in a casual restaurant like Polpo, and I don’t even usually like this type of thing to finish a meal. It certainly ran circles around a similar dessert I had at Jamie’s Italian. 10/10.

Galani Pick-me-up

After enquiring as to what the Galani Pick-me-up actually was (I knew galani a type of crisp Italian dough, but not much more), and being informed that it was “sort of like a crisp tiramisu with coffee flavored cream and chocolate sauce,” I didn’t hesitate for an instant. I’m glad I had asked too, because this was nearly, if not equally, as good as the cake. The most interesting thing about this dessert was the intenseness of the coffee flavor in the cream. The rich yet slightly bitter cream was the perfect foil for the sweeter chocolate sauce and the crispy fried dough provided the necessary crunch to hold it all together, and to hold interest. The portion was humongous and I did find towards the end that it had become a bit much of the same to eat, but still managed to polish it off, from memory. 9/10.

Single Espresso

I needed an espresso before heading back to the office, and it was very good, with a nice crema and served warm and not too tight (condensed). I noticed that they ground the beans each time they made a coffee, which was a good sign, and the flavor of the espresso was nicely balanced between floral and caramel.

I needed another ‘pick-me-up’

Over the last bank holiday Monday, Mrs. LF and I were getting quite hungry and felt like going out for something to eat. We couldn’t decide on where to go, but then she recommended “that Italian place in Soho that you’ve been going on about” and that was that. I knew there was a reason I married the woman – she consistently reminds me of my own brilliance. 🙂

Green Apple Juice, Mint, Ginger & 2008 Pieropan Soave

We got there in the middle of lunch service without a booking, but I still couldn’t believe it was so packed on a bank holiday. We managed to get a seat at the bar straight away, though, luckily. The bar stools were very comfortable to sit in and I always think it’s a nice way to eat when there are two of you. Like Kavey, Mrs. LF ordered a soft drink (hers consisted of apple juice, mint and ginger), while I splurged on a slightly fancier wine this time, the 2008 Pieropan Soave, a producer I know well. Although it is their entry-level wine, it is still a good one, and went down well on the sunny afternoon.

Our selection of cicchetti: Arancini, Salami & Radicchio Grissini, Potato & Parmesan Crocchetta, Chopped Chicken Liver, White Anchovy & Tapenade Egg

We ordered a bunch of cicchetti to start with. The arancini and chopped chicken liver were equally as good this time around. New items included a potato and parmesan crocchetta, which Mrs. LF found to be very “moreish, rich and satisfying – exactly what you want in a croquet.” She gave it a 9/10.

Of the white anchovy, tapenade and egg, Mrs. LF said that “…it was nothing to get excited about. It was basically chopped green olives and an anchovy set on top of a boiled egg. While the egg had been boiled recently, maybe the dish could have benefitted from a different cooking of the egg, with it being slightly runnier, for instance. Also, the tapenade wasn’t a tapenade (as advertised on the menu) in the sense that it was just chopped green olives and didn’t deliver in flavor what a real tapenade could have done. To me, it was kind of a waste of space on the menu as it’s not something you’d come back and re-order, but rather something you order by mistake – and the title of the dish should probably be changed as it can be misleading.” 5/10.

Despite my previous experience, Mrs. LF wanted to order the salami and radicchio grissini. She thought that the combination of salami and the pickled radicchio worked really well, and enjoyed it more than I had on the previous occasion. However, she did agree that for £2 there should really be at least two served on the plate. She gave it a 7/10 for the taste.

Arancini

I thought I’d include another photo of the lovely arancini as l liked this image a lot. 🙂

Bittersweet Mackerel, Pinenuts, Raisins

We both liked our first bite of the cold mackerel dish. It was definitely more bitter than sweet. It seemed everything had been pickled to some extent as even the raisins, which I had expected to provide the ‘sweet’, were vinegary. It helped that the sloppy little pyramid lay on a base of toasted bread, which lent some necessary contrast to the sharpness of the other elements. The problem for me with this dish was that, after about six or seven bites, it was just too sour and too sharp, and I had trouble finishing it off, even with the bread. While we both enjoyed it to some extent (Mrs. LF more than me), and there was nothing wrong with it, we felt it would have done much better by being served in smaller portions. Mrs. LF said that “It would be great to have this kind of dish as finger food, when you have a little bite now and again over an hour or two. But as a larger dish it’s too vinegary, and you lose interest after a while.” 6/10.

Fritto Misto

I’ve already commented on the fritto misto above, and it was also good on the second visit, although the squid were slightly tougher than the first time I had them.

Grilled & Sliced Flank Steak with White Truffle Cream

Mrs. LF had ordered the flank steak, which came grilled and sliced on a bed of rocket and was dressed with a white truffle cream. She said: “It had a really good steaky flavor and had been cooked to my specification (unfortunately, medium as I am pregnant!). However, the meat was a bit tough and I had to chew it for a long time to break it down before swallowing the steak. The white truffle cream was absolutely delicious and made a perfect accompaniment for the red meat and salad. I must say that the rocket leaves themselves were very fresh, especially for a bank holiday Monday. I am always slightly suspicious and paranoid about salad leaves not being washed properly in restaurants, especially on bank holidays, and also hate when they are soggy and/or old. For example, on the last bank holiday, I ordered a Caesar salad at a well-known small burger chain in central London and the leaves were brown, soggy and clearly not fresh – but my fears were allayed straight away at Polpo. The dish was really good, apart from the meat being a little too chewy.” 7/10.

Flourless Orange & Almond Cake with Mascarpone

I had to have the orange and almond cake again as I had been dreaming of it some nights (literally). Mrs. LF was not let down either, despite my copious amounts of hype. She said it was “…amazing, such a memorable dessert. In fact, I can still taste it now if I close my eyes and can feel the texture in my mouth.” She said that the next time we have a dinner party she’d like to go into the restaurant and ask if they can make a whole cake for us! I wouldn’t stop her, it is bloody fantastic. My only quibble was that, on this occasion, it was severely lacking in the crisp, candied orange peel bits that had been sprinkled generously around my previous slice a few weeks before. These are really important to the dessert, so I would urge them to ensure they are consistent in this department.

Affogato al Caffé

I was tempted to have the Galani Pick-me-up again, but after remembering how big it was, opted for the more modest affogato al caffé, which provided roughly the same flavor combination (sans the chocolate) in a pretty little package. There’s not much to say about it; it was a perfectly fine affogato, though I would have preferred a smidgen more ice cream, but hey, I’m greedy. 6.5/10.

Getting ‘it’ right

After sampling a number of dishes over two long lunches at Polpo, I must say that really enjoy being in the place. They have gotten a lot of things right. The atmosphere is vibrant. The design is funky and spot-on, with loving attention to detail evident through features, such as the choice of hanging light-bulbs and the little sink behind the front bar. The service is relaxed and friendly yet at the same time attentive, informative and professional. And, for a very busy restaurant, the staff are remarkably efficient, keep their energy up and don’t seemed phased by anything. The food is generally very good also. I didn’t have any truly ‘dud’ dishes on either occasion (though some could use some tweaking), and some of the food was downright spectacular – in fact, Mrs. LF and I have been getting hungry looking back at the photos as we write this post.

I think it’s very important to remember that this is a casual Italian eatery serving very simple food and, on that basis, I think it succeeds marvellously. It is certainly better than what you’ll get at other places in London serving similar fare within the same price bracket, and the fact that it has a sense of individuality, purpose and integrity about it makes Polpo stand out for me against other such offerings. Speaking of integrity, it is certainly not a true Venetian bacaro as it is primarily a sit-down restaurant that has a lot of thing besides cicchetti on the menu, and in truth, the design does lean more towards the Lower East Side of Manhattan than the backstreets of Venice, although there are some Venetian features which have been sympathetically rendered.

Oh, one more thing, it’s not very expensive either. My lunch with Mrs. LF ended up being £26 per head, including one of the pricier carafes of wine (£10 for a 1/4 liter), and my lunch with Kavey came in only slightly higher at £29 per head. In the latter lunch, we had three cicchetti, four larger plates, one side dish, two desserts, a soft drink, a carafe of house wine and an espresso (and this included service) – not bad in my estimation.

It’s no surprise to me that there are plans to open a second restaurant in a similar vein in the very near future. It is to be called Spuntino and you can follow the developments on twitter or on the new place’s blog.

If you haven’t been to Polpo, I highly recommend it for a nice casual place to go and have a good time. But don’t think it will be more than that and don’t expect complicated, nuanced, high-end food – that’s not what they’re there for.

Rating

Ambience: 8/10

Service: 8/10

Food: 7/10

Wine: a small but carefully chosen little all Italian line-up, and as mentioned above, the best thing about it is that everything is available by the quarter or half liter, as well as by the bottle.

For more about my rating scale, click here.

*Note: I have dined at Polpo twice, and both times it was for lunch.*

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