Monday, 25 February 2013

Kao Sarn, Brixton Village: an authentic local Thai restaurant



Thai food is popular in the UK, there is no denying. But is that because we genuinely crave its challenging flavours, or because we've got used to a sanitised version of the cuisine where a dash of curry paste from a pot and a glug of coconut milk makes us feel we've eaten something exotic? Well, whatever your thoughts on the popularity of Thai food, if you want to strip away the panderings to western palates of workaday pubs serving Thai food and supermarket jars of red and green curry sauce, this is the place.

Having visited Thailand and experimented at home regularly with making various dishes, I now feel that I have some idea for what tastes authentic and what does not. My own efforts don't always measure up, but then, when you are working from a Som Tam recipe (Spicy Papaya Salad) calling for 10 chillies to make the dressing, you might also balk at true authenticity!

Situated under the railway bridge in Brixton Village, this is a small restaurant which has gained quite a reputation. Not for being a showy place for fine dining, but rather an informal cafe style place with no frills but good food. Having been brought on a Gastronomic tour of Brixton by Food I Fancy blog's lead author and founder Tash, I was keen to investigate! (Tash's excellent Food I Fancy blog cab be found here http://www.foodifancy.com/) 

Because Tash was such an easy going host, I was given the choice of eating outside or inside. Perhaps it is my age, but my circulation isn't what is used to be. I am cursed with cold, often numb, extremities. I love my fingers and toes, but often doubt if they are still connected. So given the choice, I plumped for inside. Other diners may want to note that the management kindly provide fleecy blanket wraps for those eating outside. It's a nice touch, and when I am more in touch with my inner granny than I currently am (we are in the semi-denial phase), then I perhaps would accept with greater willingness. 

So, once inside it was time to check out the menu. Typed out on both sides of a single sheet of A4 and laminated, the menu is a small, select assortment of the most popular Thai dishes with a few additions. I found it hard to choose and there were several dishes, both starters and mains that I was in two minds about. If I'd had a bigger appetite, we would have liked to have sampled much more of the menu. 

Moo Ping £4.90
Marinated grilled pork skewers with a tamarind, chilli and palm sugar sauce
One of the guiding principles of Thai food is that the main 4 flavours should all be in balance with one another. So the marinade, once cooked, takes on a caramel sweetness, with a touch of spice. The dipping sauce has a tangy flavour just on the sour cusp of the more familiar sweet and sour taste you'd find in standard shop bought Thai sweet chilli sauce and the chilli, although sparingly added packs enough punch to bring the whole dish together. This dish was a treat, and we both thoroughly enjoyed it. 



Goong Tod £5.90
King Prawns in batter with dipping sauce 
This was quite good, without going overboard. The prawns were a decent size. The dipping sauce was NOT a shop bought See Woo special, but a homemade blend with subtlety and sophistication. My criticism is that I had expected a lighter and fluffier batter. But then, if I had eaten this somewhere else, I would probably have been pleased with it. It's funny how elastic your expectations can be. Given how good the skewers were, this paled by comparison, and were just a little greasy.

Yum Woonsen £6.90 
King Prawn, Minced pork and glass noodle salad
Glass noodles are thin noodles, less than 1mm in diameter which rather than being made out of rice or flour, are made of mung bean flour. As a result, when cooked they are practically transparent, hence their name. They have a somewhat springy texture which makes them more pleasing and less bland than plain rice noodles. The salad dressing was a mingling of fish sauce (nam pla), lime juice, palm sugar and, of course, chilli. On ordering I was asked how hot I wanted it, and given the option of hot or medium. Since I am obviously of Indian ethnic origin (being a cup of tea shade of brown all over), it is often assumed I have the chilli defences of a typical Indian person (lead lined mouth, asbestos lips and flameproof stomach). This was one of the many lessons of travelling around Asia which has stayed with me in particular. So I asked how hot the medium is. Our waitress (who I believe is the lovely Gisele) assured me 'hot enough'. It was; hot enough to give the dish kick but not overpower it. In other words, hot enough to send you swiftly to down a glass of water, but not so hot that your nose is streaming. This was a great dish, with herbs, red onion, cooked pork mince and king prawns combining in a wonderful yin-yang balance.  



Massaman beef curry with steamed rice £6.90
Massaman curry originates from the southern region of Thailand. In the south, coconut milk is used for the curry gravy. In the cooler north, this is not the case. "Massaman" translates as 'Muslim' since the people of the south are generally of the Islamic faith. A good Massaman curry will have a deep, cooked-in spicy flavour, thick gravy and chunks of meat which are tender and gently cooked. This was a lovely example of the dish, which I have had both in the UK and in the Muslim south of Thailand. Served with steamed rice, this was a super lunchtime dish. A few wedges of perfectly cooked potato complemented the beef perfectly. 



Many other diners elected for the Pad Thai, and few left any food on their plate. Perhaps the version here is a good one, but this may have to be investigated on a future visit. Sadly no-one ordered the Gai Yang, Khao Neau, Som Tam, the half chicken with sticky rice and papaya salad (£11.50) which we had thought about, but were not quite feeling hungry enough to tackle. We had wanted to see what the dish looked like, but were denied on this occasion. 

Many dishes were served with 'Tai Dow'; a fried egg on the top. Cooked so it is "Just Done", the centre is soft, allowing the egg to be broken over the noodles or rice, providing eggy runny goodness. I am partially allergic to eggs, and so I passed on that, but it was good to see something very familiar from my travels brought to the UK. Him Indoors became particularly fond of 'Tai Dow' and surprised many street food stall holders in Thailand with his order. 

Since we had met for a fairly early lunch, we did not have any alcohol, electing instead for the hot homemade ginger tea (£1.90) and hot homemade lemongrass tea (£1.90). They were warming and pleasant, although I admit I have had better fresh lemongrass infusions elsewhere. Both are available as cold teas if you would prefer. 

Tap water is provided without having to ask by the glass. A much appreciated touch. Particularly when dealing with a goodly amount of birds eye chillis!

This is a very busy place. It is in demand throughout the day. Our staff were very competent, and kept on top of our orders and requests at all times. Other reviewers have made comment about the service received, and I have to say I have no complaints at all. Service was swift, effective and well judged. When glasses of (free) water ran dry, we only had to ask once to be refilled. They had no hope of remuneration in doing so, and I have found the task far more difficult in posher, more highly regarded restaurants.

The restaurant has a BYOB policy, so you can have a very pleasant meal with wine for an absolute song. Currently there is no corkage charge. Seriously! So fill your boots! I recommend a Gruner Veltliner, Gewurtztraminer or Orvieto Amabile. I have tried all of them with spicy and/or chilli adorned food and have found them to be great accompaniments. 

My overall verdict is that this is a place to go for a highly enjoyable and authentic meal. You may need to prepare yourself for a small and intimate restaurant with basic surroundings. If it is luxurious surroundings you desire, go somewhere else. Obviously you will end up paying far more. However, for a special evening out (first date, anniversary, proposal), I would completely understand your choice. 

Tash of FoodIFancy blog and I paid hard earned cash (of the folding variety) for our meal.

Kaosarn
Brixton Village Market
London
SW9 8PR
Tel: 020 7095 8922

 
Kaosarn on Urbanspoon

Friday, 22 February 2013

Favourites List - February 2013


And as I hath forthtoldeth, so it hath cometh to pass....... We are in assessment season. A time of fear, anxiety and hardship. My poor students have just taken an advocacy assessment and an exam testing their drafting skills. They are also working towards a hand in of some written work and are preparing for some very taxing knowledge exams. They are stressed and tired. The tutors are in the middle of marking whilst teaching. We are all struggling to stay energised and enthusiastic. Thankfully, Spring is around the corner, and spirits will lift as the days get steadily longer and brighter. 

I am still very much minded to eat and cook Wintry comfort food. I am not yet ready for salads and light bites. So pastas, soups and stews remain what is going on down in this neck of the woods. 

My enormous headphones are more than earning their keep as earmuffs as well as delivering tunage to my frostbitten ears. 

So here are my selections for the month.  

Since Chinese New Year was earlier this month, on Sunday February 10th, I am using pictures from my trip to China with a theme of good luck and blessings. These prayer offerings are tied by people at many temples and shrines in China. These pictures were taken at the Daoist in the oldest remaining part of Chongqing.  



Blogs worth following:

An engaging blogger, perhaps not as snobby a the name suggests:  http://thefoodsnobuk.wordpress.com/
Dreaming of visiting Vietnam? Check out: http://stickyrice.typepad.com/my_weblog/
Jack Knight - the Knight of the Round Table:  http://theknightoftheroundtable.blogspot.co.uk/
Mummy I Can Cook blog: http://mummyicancook.blogspot.co.uk/




Recipes:

For Mardi Gras (AKA Pancake Day on Tuesday 12 February): http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2013/feb/10/nigel-slater-pancake-recipes
For food fans on a budget, a simple and cheap pasta bake: http://bluekitchenbakes.blogspot.co.uk/2013/01/cheesy-mushroom-pasta-bake.html
Spicy sausage rolls with red wine sauce for very cold days by Nigel Slater: http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2012/oct/21/nigel-slater-sausage-rolls-potato-wedges
Madhur makes Moghlai curry with beef (reckon you could use lamb equally well!):  http://www.mykitchentable.co.uk/index.php/2011/09/madhur-jaffrey-beef-baked-withyoghurt-and-black-pepper/
An alternative Pollo al Ajillo (Chicken with garlic Spanish style: http://azaharskitchen.wordpress.com/2013/01/14/pollo-al-ajillo-con-espinacas/
Angela Hartnett's simple pasta dish uses chestnuts. I can still find them fresh at my local Turkish grocers. Middle eastern and Turkish grocers also sell ready cooked packets of chestnuts. They are labelled Kestane Kebap. They are really useful and save work and hassle since they are also ready peeled! http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2013/jan/16/fettuccine-with-bacon-chestnuts-recipe
Ramen really seems to be all the rage at the moment: http://www.editer.com/food-drink/ramen-recipe/
Italian style tapas dish from Gwyneth's blog: http://goop.com/recipes/small-bites/zuchinni-fritti





Articles:

List of oily and lean fish for healthy eating: http://www.cookuk.co.uk/freezer/fish-oily-lean.htm
A really interesting idea about how to make existing recipes leaner, healthier and 'cleaner' by ingredient substitution: http://www.thegraciouspantry.com/clean-eating/food-substitution-chart/
Food fraud; horsemeat, fake duck, dodgy halal meat and products which claim to be 
A guide for all of us who can't tell our bhindi from our gajjar - Indian names for fruit and vegetables: http://www.tastyappetite.net/2013/02/glossary-of-indian-vegetable-fruits_8883.html



Films:

Red Lights

Toy Story 3

Blue Valentine

Music:

Ren Harvieu - Through The Night

Joni Mitchell - Blue

The Smiths - Hatful of Hollow

Stevie Wonder - Innervisions
Fleetwood Mac - Rumours

Saturday, 16 February 2013

Turkish 'Kebab' Rice


Turkish food is unfairly underrated in the UK. Most people seem to think that it is 'only' about kebabs. This is unfair for two very fundamental reasons. Firstly, because Turkish food is about so much more; the superb sote dishes, such Guvec (casseroles and stews which are full of flavour); their superb take on pizzas (also known as Pide); one of my personal favourites, Lahmacun and their exceptional sweet and satisfying puddings (think sutluc, baklava and kadayif). Secondly, Turkish food is healthy and nutritious; all their meals are perfect balances of everything you need. And frankly their marinaded meats are to die for! If I were to say French food was only about creamy sauces, you'd tell me that I was incompletely and unfairly generalising, and you'd be right. Yet when it comes to Turkish food, these gross generalisations seem to be tolerated.

When you eat out at Turkish restaurants, the main accompaniments are often salad and rice. This is a great combination, as you get fibre, vitamins, minerals and a dose of carbohydrates to keep you going along with your meaty protein goodness. It's a truly balanced meal, and one that is fairly low in fat since the meat is usually grilled.

If you have ever wanted to make the rice accompaniment, I have been experimenting with getting it right for some time. I first tried to write a recipe for it when I posted my Turkish Cypriot style lamb stew recipe (here http://snigskitchen.blogspot.co.uk/2012/08/turkish-cypriot-style-lamb-stew.html). But it turned out to be a bit hit and miss, depending on the level of heat from the hob. Another issue was that I had no proper idea of how much oil to use (too much affects the texture of the dish. And there was some fragrance and flavour missing. 





















So here is a revised version. You need a saucepan with a well fitting lid, and you need to use a ring on the hob which can be turned down to a very low heat.

Turkish Basic Pilaf (AKA 'Kebab' Rice)
Serves 2



















Ingredients:

2 heaped tablespoon or around 30g orzo pasta (alternatively capellini corte)
130g Lux Baldo rice
1-2 bay leaves, dried
1 tbsp olive oil
250g or ml water

Method:

In a small saucepan (for which you have a good fitting lid), heat the olive oil. You only need a medium heat.

Add the pasta. 
 















Stir frequently and fry for 2-3 minutes, until the pasta begins to toast and change colour. Turn the heat down if you think the pasta will burn. Or take it off the heat completely. You do not want the pasta to turn more than golden brown. 
















Now add the rice and bay leaves. Coat well in the oil and mix the pasta up thoroughly whilst stirring for another 2 minutes.
















Now add the water. Bring to a light boil. Turn the heat down to a very low simmer. Mix all the ingredients very thoroughly. Put the lid on the pan. 
















Cook with the lid on for 15-17 minutes. You may need to check it after about 10 minutes to stir. You want to ensure the rice at the bottom of the pan does not catch and burn.

After the main cooking time, check the rice is cooked and the water absorbed. 

If not, take the lid off, put the heat on the lowest possible heat setting you can manage, and stirring frequently, heat for a further 2-3 minutes.
















Check that the rice is cooked; it should be by now.

Serve with grilled meats or Turkish stews and salad.










Sunday, 10 February 2013

Roux at the Landau


Modern dining trends are great. I am all for the new generation of restaurants with a near obsessive interest in quality and authenticity. Often inspired by the founders' travels around the globe, these establishments try to capture the essence of some of the greatest travel and food experiences. Sometimes when you go out, you want to be transported to a quintessentially Andalucian tapas joint, or a Bombay Irani cafe or a Venetian bar. These are great places to eat, and have made the London restaurant scene the envy of the world. And if our restaurant isn't the envy of the world, it is only because the world has not yet realised how awesome it is!

But I digress, as is my habit. What I wanted to say is sometimes you want a little more space. Space to relax, with a big enough table that you aren't squashed. Time enough that you can properly chat and catch up and make an evening out of a meal. When those occasions call (as it recently did for Him Indoors and I when we wanted to catch up with one of my dearest old school friends), we needed to think long and hard about where we went. We didn't want a place with a 'no reservations' policy, or who knows how long we might wait for a table? We didn't want an establishment playing music so loud you can't talk, when the whole purpose of the evening was to chat, catch up and be sociable. We wanted a place with good food, an ethos where a good experience was key, and where the service was professional; attentive yet low key. We decided, eventually on Roux at the Landau.

Roux at the Landau is located at the Langham Hotel, Portland Place, literally across the road from the BBC's iconic building near the top end of Regent Street. Thankfully, it has its own entrance, so you don't have to feel the need to explain to the dapper and exceptionally polite staff that 'err.... umm..... I'm just looking for the restaurant. I'm not actually staying here....'! The restaurant, whose head chef (chef de cuisine) is Chris King, is run overall by Albert and Michel Roux Jnr. Chris King is the protege of Michel Roux Jnr, and worked at that pinnacle of restaurant perfection, Le Gavroche, for 5 years. So we were looking forward to a special evening of food, chat and a little luxury.
 
Canape: Fresh olives, stuffed with veal
Olives are often an acquired taste and we frequently find the preserved variety are too sour or salty. These fresh olives had a mere hint of bitterness; the real flavour of the olive unadorned by preserving agents, but with a hint of fruit. The olive's texture was firm, and the veal stuffing soft and toothsome, providing a wonderful contrast. A teasing hint at the food to come. 

Poached duck breast with savoy cabbage 'rillettes' and walnut juniper dressing
Usually 'rillettes' means you receive a pate-like dish. Commonly made of pork, the meat is cooked in fat, very slowly with copious amounts of salt. The meat is then turned into a pate or paste by slicing or shredding and then combining it with the cooking fat. However, here the rillettes are a vegetable pate made of finely chopped savoy cabbage. The cooked duck has been finely sliced and has been gently cooked to keep its consistency and flavour. The presentation of this dish is just astonishing. It is art on a slate.





Classic salmon and scallop cervelas with shellfish butter sauce
Again, we have a traditionally French dish, given an original twist. This time, cervelas, which would usually be a sausage made of pork and beef (often with bacon), has been made of seafood rather than meat. The balance of salmon and scallop is well observed, because it would have been easy for the stronger flavoured salmon to  dominate the delicate scallop. But, we are in the hands of a master, so no danger there. The cervalas was gloriously yielding, soft and tender. The shellfish butter sauce gently reminds me of the sea; tasting "of the sea" but not at all fishy. 


Spit roast chicken with pecorino-basil gnocchi and young artichoke ragout
The chicken is one of the smaller ones; not those tasteless rapidly grown ones whose flesh is open textured and full of water. It has been roasted such that it is still moist and flavourful. The gnocchi are breadcrumbed and not quite what I was expecting. My only criticism is that I can barely taste the basil, one of my favourite herbs, evoking sunny days spent in Italy. But the artichoke ragout is gently cooked and coats the chicken and gnocchi, bringing out their textures and flavours with a complimentary flavours.

Butter roast beef chateaubriand, fondant pink fir apple potatoes and Roquefort hollandaise
Rich and satisfying, the beef is delightful. With the creamy deliciousness of the Roquefort hollandaise, this is not a dish where you consider the calorie count, but one to chalk up as a decadent treat for yourself. Pink Fir Apple potatoes are rare, overshadowed by Anya and other small potato varieties. It's a slight shame that there were not more of the actual potatoes served, since they are nutty and delicious.

 

French and British Artisan cheeses
First, let me show you the selection. Other than Le Gavroche (whose cheese selection takes up a table top on a rolling trolley of at least 4 feet by 2.5 feet!!), I don't think I have ever seen such a large array of cheeses to tempt the most varied palate. Oozy, young, mature, hard, soft, blue, goats milk, lambs milk, cows milk; all tastes are catered for. Onion marmalade, pickle and quince jelly are all supplied



Ice cream sundae du jour
Served theatrically in a bowl of ice, this is spectacular. Very high quality ice cream, it needs the ice to allow you enough time to eat it without turning into slush! Topped with thin, delicately baked biscuit, this dessert selection of our guest was demolished with relish.

The desserts were enjoyed with glasses of Chateau de Cerrons dessert wine. Indulgent, but it complimented both the ice cream and cheeses with its cool, sweet raisiny tones.

I didn't take pictures of the Petits Fours. The lights were fading and flash simply ruins all attempts at food photography. Besides, my dinner companions were getting more than bored on my insistence to take photos of every single dish, often more than once. I can vouch for the fact that the forest fruit jelee was intensely flavoured with fruit with just enough gelatine for firmness, the mini-palmier light with a hint of chocolate  There is a choice of coffees or a variety of teas, all of which are a very high quality. 

Turning to the service, I cannot fault it. It is kind, polite, attentive yet unobtrustive. Sometimes I find too much attention a little intimidating. And I really don't like snootiness, which I have experienced both in London and elsewhere.  Here the courses are not rushed, guests are given the time to eat, chat and settle down. You aren't faced with the next plate of food as soon as you've finished the last. This is exactly how I like it. There was no hint of the pushy and sometimes aggressive table turning which blights so much of the London high-scale market. We were not rushed in any way, even after we'd paid the bill but wanted to finish off our teas and coffees.

For such an upmarket restaurant (the dinner guest that Him Indoors and I brought along exclaimed 'Fancy!' as one of her impressions of the place), there is little pretension about Roux at the Landau. The service is unbelieveably polite but with a kindness and charm that is sometimes absent from 'posh' eateries'. There is none of the typical pressure to choose 'still or sparkling' water. Good old London tap water is brought to you without any sniffy attitude, which many London restaurants should note. We customers are already paying top banana for our meal - with wine - so we don't see any reason to pay between £5 and £9 for plain old H2O! 

Overall, my assessment is that the food, wine, surroundings and service here are amazing. It does, however, come at a price. It isn't excessive, for what you get. I just think it is a place for you to choose the suitable occasion for - then relax and enjoy in the care of experts in their field.

Snigdha, Him Indoors and our friend paid proper money - AKA pictures of the Queen - for their meal.

Roux at The Landau on Urbanspoon