Monday, November 04, 2013

Pub Grub All Dolled Up


The Chelsea Potter is what can be considered a classic English pub. Heavy on dark wood, light on, well, lighting. It sets a mood of warmth on a cool British evening, traditionally accomplished with smoke and mirrors, literally. Now that smoking is no longer allowed, the lord be praised, the mood is still one of camaraderie, and the menu hasn't changed by much.


Bangers and mash, sausage and mashed potatoes have been a staple of the pub menu, providing the working class with a filling comfort food. Today's light gravy and onion chutney show some effort, but don't elevate this dish to the level one would expect from a "gastro pub".

DSC05801 DSC05803

Roast meat, generally beef, is another venerable staple of the pub menu. On our visit, the roast beef with Yorkshire pudding was unavailable, so the waiter suggested the "pork roast". Since the Yorkshire pudding was really what I wanted, he offered to just substitute the meat and bring me the same set up with pork in place of beef. Great idea. I was surprised, but delighted to see that what he called pork roast was what I call pork belly. Instead of the dry, overcooked pork I had feared, it was moist and rich in flavor.

DSC05806DSC05805 DSC05804

The pork was delicious, tender and succulent, but I couldn't help but notice that there was no Yorkshire pudding. After an apology because that too was no longer available, our waiter offered to bring me an order of sweet potato fries. Hmmm, after looking over the plate and noticing not one but two forms of potato already, I declined a 3rd potato, no matter how sweet it might be.


Our waiter couldn't take "no thank you" for an answer and as we were finishing up our meal, placed a serving of Treacle Sponge on our table. Sitting in a pool of warm vanilla custard sauce, this suet imbued cake was much like a sticky toffee pudding and we were grateful for his persistence in trying to please a customer.

DSC02041 DSC02042 

The Trafalgar, a neighboring pub to Chelsea Potter on Kings Road in Chelsea, was trying for a more modern twist on pub grub. Although I liked the idea, and would go there again, it's success was modest.

DSC02050DSC02051 DSC02049

Plaice instead of cod didn't make a perceptible difference in the Fish & Chips category. Although it is also a classic version of a pub menu item, the parsley in the batter did not elevate this preparation to gourmet. It can be said that the mushy peas accompanying it were the freshest tasting I had ever tried and not unpleasant in color from overcooking like the traditional version. The fish was flaky and crisp, as were the "chips".

DSC02046 DSC02048

A Chicken Caesar Salad fared much better as a means to modernize the menu. The whole anchovies were a good indication that the chef had actually tasted a classic Ceasar, since every other Ceasar we have eaten in Europe had subbed them for some form of meat, usually bacon or ham. Trafalgar definitely gets points for this execution.


They loose points for presenting a Californian with Sierra Nevada, when he asked for a local ale.


To be continued.....

Sunday, November 03, 2013

London's Chinatown

 DSC05907 DSC05911

Size shouldn't matter, but in all honesty, Chinatown in London seemed disproportionately small considering the the size of the population in general. Certainly one cannot expect all Chinese Londoners to live in one place, but as a central source for Chinese culture, traditional foods and community this chinatown would not set any records. As tourists, we are admittedly there "for the food" where size only counts when it comes to portions of food served in the restaurants.


Having grown up on the Pacific Rim in San Francisco, I was exposed to Chinese food at a young age, so it is an adopted comfort food for me. When I'm not eating pasta or risotto, I'm eating chow fun or fried rice. When traveling we occasionally need a break from local cuisine and head for the local Italian or Chinese restaurant to see how recipes have been adapted for local consumption.

DSC05921 DSC05912

The young man who was hired to solicit customers into Oriental Dragon seemed so uncomfortable with his assignment that we decided to give him a bit more confidence and eat there, especially when we saw it was a dim sum restaurant, offering few surprises. Although I'm all for trying new dishes, sometimes only the familiar seems appealing. With further investigation it was made clear that the kitchen employs 5 chefs that make specialties from 5 different regions. That was a surprise.


If it weren't for the dim sum, I'm not certain this restaurant would have been as predictable as we had imagined. Luncheon meats and potatoes with vinegar seemed quite an adaption to local tastes.

DSC05914 DSC05916

Ha gow and siu mai were just what we were looking for on this particular evening. Although no one can make a bad ha gow, it does seem that sui mai is wide open for personal interpretation. While we have been bombarded with the slogan, "Pork, the other white meat." was it too much to expect a bit of color and flavor in this dumpling? Was this siu mai even made with pork? Could luncheon meat be this pale? Needless to say, we did not argue over which one of us would claim the last dumpling in the basket.


Ah, barbequed pork fried rice, another stalwart of Chinese cuisine that seems to translate well, no matter what country in which it is served. This was the taste of home we were trying to find. It's true, we have never met a fried rice we didn't like and this was no exception, however it was not exceptional in taste either.

DSC05919 DSC05920

Char siu bao, another dim sum staple, was an excellent example of a well rendered interpretation of a classic. While the meal was mundane, that may have had more to do with our ordering than anything else. I should have at least tried the stir fried lily bulbs or the marinated mooli, if only to discover what they were.

31 Gerard St
London, W1D 6JT
020 7734 2763

Monday, October 28, 2013

eDreams Becomes An eNightmare

Usually when I purchase an airline ticket for Europe I go to I've had very good luck with it on many occasions. Not so on my last trip. At that particular time several other booking agencies popped up on the screen and the best prices were offered on a website called eDreams from France. 

When I first booked the ticket, I tried going from Rome to London Heathrow. After I clicked the flight I wanted, I noticed that it was going to Gatwick airport which meant a more expensive train ride into town and several Tube changes along the way, rather than a direct route on the Tube from Heathrow to Earls Court where my hotel was located.

Okay, I made a mistake, so I backtracked to where the flights were listed and believed that I hit the button for the tickets going to Heathrow. I continued on the website until I had finished paying for the plane fare. I made one serious mistake. I failed to look at the confirmation notice. Two days before my flight to London, I looked at my printed confirmation for the first time, and realized that the plane was going to Gatwick. This meant that backtracking did not work on this site, since the first tickets I clicked on were the tickets that I actually purchased.

Mistake number two was that nothing on either the tickets nor the itinerary mentioned anything about the baggage. When I arrived at the British Airways counter in Rome I asked what our baggage allowance was. I was told that we had no baggage allowance at all because I had purchased an inexpensive ticket. When I went to the BA website later that day, it clearly stated that each passenger had a one bag allowance, with no reference at all to passengers purchasing low-cost tickets. The eDreams site had a link to baggage allowances that failed and redirected me back to their site. The BA agent insisted that we could only bring on one carry-on bag weighing 13 pounds, or less. Since that was impossible, we ended up paying for bags at the cost of €46 each. Ouch!

Lesson learned; check your itinerary immediately, find out about baggage allowances before purchasing your ticket, and only deal with websites that you trust.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Campo Dei Fiore, Field of Flowers

Of all the tourist attractions in Rome, the Campo Dei Fiore seems to be the most active, both day and night. In the morning the large piazza  transforms into an open air market for its lively neighborhood  of residents and craftsmen. Surrounded by restaurants, bakeries; shops selling food specialties, fresh meats, and wine; it becomes a magnet for tourists seeking a more personalized view of Roman life. At night it becomes a destination for impromptu entertainment.

DSC03783 DSC04706
In the morning, at first light, produce and flower vendors are setting up their wares. Tables and umbrellas are set up all across the campo. It's difficult to distinguish the umbrellas of the restaurants that encircle the campo from those of the vendors, so from a distance the market seems larger than it's actual size.

DSC04421 DSC03681   

Kitchen  wares, tee shirts, umbrellas, aprons, the produce, flowers, plants, dried pasta, spices,  honey and preserves, olive oil, truffles, as well as balsamic vinegar and various condiments sit side-by-side in this world renowned market.

Some vendors present their products as perfect gifts to take home; for instance, the olive oil and balsamic vinegar that's packed together in cellophane and tied with ribbon or spice mixes packaged with the name of the campo. Make no mistake about it, that bag of dried vegetables and spices has nothing to do with Carbonara, which is a pasta made with guanciale, eggs, pepper and cheese. It would, however,  make a decent soup base or flavoring for a tomato based, vegetarian, pasta sauce. I find it difficult to believe  that any native born Italian would have put this product together and said it was a preparation for pasta Carbonara.
DSC04463 DSC04274

The truffle products are hard to beat, but don't cost very much more at home, if you can find them. I bought a small jar of Urbani white truffle salt and brought it home. It is much more fragrant than any other truffle salt I have purchased to date. Perhaps it's because the vast majority of truffle salts are made with black truffles.

On Saturday you might find more clothing such as a sweater stand. It's apparent that the current focus of most vendors is on the tourist trade, so if your interest is in seeing a functioning neighborhood market, Esquilino and Testaccio may be a better choice. If you are lucky enough to be renting an apartment with a kitchen in this area, then the market and surrounding shops are excellent for making your own meals. These are a few of the items I put together while visiting this neighborhood: A cheese plate consisting of Pecorino Romano with an onion, balsamic, cranberry and apricot jam; a sheep's milk ricotta, the creamiest and sweetest I have ever tasted, with a balsamic and dried cherry reduction (I cheated and brought the cherries and cranberries from home); Goat's cheese and mascarpone covered with walnuts and honey; a meat based pasta sauce; smoked salmon carpaccio with olive oil, lemon and fresh oregano; and various sandwiches made with freshly baked rossetta rolls and pizza bianca pizza from the bakery and cold cuts from the salumerie.

Several vendors stood out, perhaps because their displays were so beautifully manicured, but others were noticeable for the personality of the vendors themselves.  Leo, the owner or manager of the best looking produce in the entire market was very engaging. One day he asked my name and where I was from, then handed me off to an employee. The next day he introduced me to yet another assistant, but by my name and home town. While I would not call that a pitch, it did produce a sale. The selection of produce was quite wide in range and if you were wondering about the pine cones, you've heard of pignoli or pine nuts, right? The last photo is one of chestnuts, wearing their overcoats.

Prospero, the 78 year old Roman answer to Ron Popeil, was wooing customers with his kitchen tools that shredded, sliced and corkscrewed vegetables. He did this while singing Bibbidy Bobbidy Boo. Who could resist such a pitch?  Although his prices were firm, he insisted that if I used his name, the man selling cheese would be happy to offer me a discount. I had to wonder if the cheese monger knew about this "sconto" (discount). By the end of the day when the magic was over, Prospero, much like Cinderella's coach, disappeared and all that  remained was a pumpkin, or in this particular case, carrot shreds.

Because of the large number of restaurants surrounding the campo, it becomes a convenient place for your morning cappuccino. You can watch the hustle and bustle of the market while you're leisurely sipping your drink. During the day the menus change from pastries and coffee, to pasta, panini and pizza. In the early evenings you can still find something to snack on. If you need that cappuccino or tea, don't be shy about asking for them if  you can't find them on the menu. As I worked my way through the sea of restaurants I found that many were willing to accommodate you with these drinks, even the pizzeria and mozzarella bar.

If you're looking for good pastry to go with your coffee, I would recommend that you buy them from a bakery rather than at a restaurant. The selection will be much better and fresher. I would direct you to Il Fornaio, the long-standing neighborhood bakery two short blocks away on Via Dei Baullari, the street that bisects the campo. You'll recognize it by a large plastic case holding a huge mortadella, or in this case, a large roasted porchetta. This bakery is also very good for sandwiches and focaccia or what the Romans call Pizza Bianca.
Now let's take a look at those pastires. Il Fornaio's selection is extensive.

Forno Campo Dei Fiore is a bakery well known for baking excellent Pizza Bianca and sandwiches made with it, but their pastries are few, mostly biscotti. I recommend it for take out sandwiches when you are on your way to walk along the Tevere river just a few blocks away. If it does not seem to you that there is enough Mortadella in that panini, keep in mind that in Italy sauce is a condiment for pasta and used sparingly, and cold cuts are used in the same way, since the bread is the most important element.
DSC04631 DSC04845

Later in the evening, when the vendors have packed away their goods and left the area, the bars start attracting young customers from all over the city.  Those too young for the bars, work their way to the gelaterie in the area, but always end up in the campo. 
DSC03659 DSC05125

Hungry yet? Not only are there 10 or more restaurants in Campo Dei Fiore itself, you can also find many more clustered on the side streets. They range in price as well as quality, serving the classic dishes or more imaginative renditions of the classics, all the while using seasonal ingredients. The seasons can be long in Italy, as was evidenced by fresh artichokes and asparagus in October. Hopefully the tradition of eating locally and seasonally has not gone the way of the siesta, a 2-3 hour break in the middle of the work day.
DSC05124DSC04341DSC03536 DSC04340