Part II: Foodie Adventure Day (FAD) in London
Sometime a while back I wrote to Monica of Smarter Fitter and wrote I’m coming to England in March, want to meet up? That one little email wasn’t the easiest to write, I’m never sure what people actually think of me (you think I’d be over that 5 years into this blog) and I’ve never met up with another blogger before, so it was all in the air and I waited around a little finger-bitingly. “I’m always explaining, I wrote, to people that “my friend in England, well, ok, not a friend, but this blogger that I feel like I have a friendship with, well, ok, this is starting to sound awkward….” Seriously, I’m that insecure sometimes. But, thankfully, it wasn’t awkward and she wrote back saying that she’d love to meet up. A little like a first date, no? Except transcontinental. Love it.
“Foodie Adventure Day” (or FAD for short) was one of the things I was most looking forward to on the trip. I just knew we’d have to get along. Not to copy Monica’s post, but here’s a quick list:
- We both love the countryside–Monica’s got me beat, she still lives in a rural area in a converted barn nonetheless, but we both love getting out and tromping around outside. Always a good sign.
- We’re both obsessed with food (duh) and we were both vegetarians–again, she’s got me beat in years–but “came out” over the past couple of years (fish for her, everything for me)
- She already lives the dream of a freelance food-related business and I’m just dreaming, but we’ve both got that
- We’re short.
- We both swim (aren’t all swimmers just the best?)
- We both seem a tad geeky about technology
- etc etc etc.
The list goes on and on…and, like she mentioned as well, we both discovered a lot of other things in common–we have the same camera, we love the same kind of music, we love tromping around cities and popping into places and grabbing a latte midday. We never ran out of anything to talk about. If nothing else, it was like, poof, now we’re instant old friends and isn’t this the jam?
After meeting up at our hotel, we jetted across London to Moro at Exmouth Market. I wish G & I had gone back towards that area to explore it a bit, because it seemed like a vibrant little neighborhood with tons of restaurants and small, independent shops, and lots of 20-30-somethings walking around and cycling. My kind of neighborhood. The restaurant itself opened in 1997, but I didn’t know about it until a few years ago. I immediately fell in love with the reviews I’d read and the recipes I’d seen adapted or recreated from the restaurant and subsequent cookbooks. The dishes are known to be fresh and seasonal and highly influenced by Moorish cuisine, definitely a different take on a restaurant in London that I’d ever imagined. But I guess that’s the fun of whatever decade we’re now in–it’s all global and largely delicious.
The interior of Moro is plain and comforting–white walls with bright green paint donning the lower half, several columns, and simple chairs and tables. On the far end, the kitchen opens up with the chefs busily preparing lunch, and, to the left, a bar runs half the length of the room. Although it’s not a hot day (re: March in London), the restaurant feels like a cool breeze or the moment your head hits a cool pillowcase on a hot, humid July night. It’s place-setting and, immediately, each guest is transported to Spain.
Our meal started with a bread basket–thick, dense and yet pillowy chunks of in-house bread served with olive oil, salt, and pepper. It’s the kind of bread you want with every meal, something with bite and with sustenance, something with the flavor of home. As an appetizer, we decided to share the Charcoal Grilled Sardines with Gum Mastic, Harissa, and Fried Artichokes (umm, gum mastic, anyone?). I, for one, had never (I think) eaten a sardine before, so I figured why not, and Monica, for the other had cooked sardines previously but thought they weren’t so fabulous, so she was itching for new techniques to try on the buggers. G, opposite of us, grew up eating sardines. After trying the dish, I can see how sardines can be hard to cook right–I just don’t get the bones, for one. How much do I eat? How much do I pick out? They taste, well, like a nice fish, but nothing special (other than they’re probably less poisonous to eat these days, hooray for bioaccumulation). The fried artichokes and harissa, on the other hand, were stupendous! Crispy and salty, the artichokes really elevated what an artichoke is, and the harissa was bright and acidic and flavorful–hard not to steal the two elements and slather them on the bread.
Monica, now a fish eater, ordered the Charcoal Grilled Sea Bass with Six Grains, Sweet Herbs, and Turnip Salad–something I only tried a bite or two of, but which was really quite nice. The fish held some nice grill marks on the outside with a touch of crisp, but the fillet itself was flaky and moist and paired perfectly with the chew of the six grain mix and the crunch of the turnips. Given the in-between feelings of March–is it spring or is it winter?–the dish seemed to straddle both with the grains and fish, and the turnips, while definitely a winter root vegetable, were light with a snap to each bite, almost like a spring pea or radish.
On the other side of the spectrum, G ordered the Charcoal Grilled Lamb with Slow-Cooked Leeks with Walnuts, Mint, and Farika. The lamb is, I’ve read, the specialty of the house, so we couldn’t visit without ordering it, and, boy, am I glad we did. I almost had to fight G for bites. Grilled perfectly, the lamb balanced the charcoal flavor with the sweet grassiness of the meat itself and was cooked better than any other portion of lamb I’ve had in my life. The text book definition of medium-rare. Pink but not kicking raw, it was a sight to behold. Or to chew, I suppose. The leeks were soft and rich and the pop of pomegranate seeds was a nice touch to an already perfect plate.
I ordered the Mixed Vegetable Mezze to pair with our main dishes and holy moly was it a heaping portion of vegetables, hummus, pita, and grains. The mezze represented nearly everything on everyone else’s plates–the leeks from the lamb, the turnips and grains from the fish–in addition to hummus, baba ganoush, broccoli, roasted red peppers, raw vegetables, fresh lima beans, in-house pita, etc. A monster of a portion, the plate was incredible and the hummus, especially, caught our attention. A little wine buzzed at this point (who doesn’t order a bottle of wine for lunch? For reals, it’s the way to go), we argued back and forth about what the mystery ingredient could be–something floral, an herb, a spice? Turns out it was the olive oil. The olive oil! Of course. Duh. Quality olive oils all taste differently depending on the region and how they’re grown. The server, bless her, brought the giant jug out for us to look at which Monica grabbed a picture of.
Reveling a bit in our almost-three-hour-lunch, we waddled outside in search of a coffee. I’ve mostly given up caffeine these days, but I was with everyone else and in need of a pick-me-up. Right across from Moro, thankfully, is a great little place called Gail’s which serves not only coffee but some of the most delicious looking breads and pastries I’ve seen in awhile. I loved the feel of the place–concrete floors, white walls, tons of light and tons of people sitting around and chatting with their coffee or tea–and it even offers free wifi, a luxury in London.
Caffeinated, we tromped off towards St. Paul’s via the Smithfield Meat Market (gorgeous architecture! And so vibrant!) and popped in right when their evening choir thing starts. A pretty church, it’s not the most epic cathedral in Europe, but apparently the view at the top is top-notch. We just poked around and listened to some music, though, before jetting across the Millennium Bridge to the Tate. I’m a fan of footbridges, don’t miss this one if you’re in the city. A quick 45 minute stroll through the Tate revealed some great art and an even funner escalator ride through one pay-only exhibit, and then it was off to the subway to head to Nopi for our next feast.
When I first wrote Monica, I mentioned that I desperately wanted to eat at Ottolenghi. She suggested Ottolenghi’s newest venture, Nopi, though as an alternative since the flagship restaurant is more of a grab-and-go lunch spot and not as conducive to awesome dinners. I really mostly wanted to just try Ottolenghi’s food, so Nopi sounded great, plus reservations were actually available there which made it all the more attractive (if you go anywhere nice in London RESERVE–everything gets booked weeks in advance, it’s nuts!). The restaurant is gorgeous–cream base with gold lights and gold accents everywhere. The upstairs dining room is traditional and quite posh, but we booked the basement room–a family-style room with two large tables, a pantry along one wall, and the kitchen open at the other end. We’d worried if it’d be intimate enough since there were three of us and the seating might be awkward, but we were stationed at one of the end of the table which was great for conversation. (Side note: the bathrooms are *crazy*: fully mirrored, i.e. all walls, and octagonal, or something like that, it’s a little like a circus, but in a good way. Just be sure to check them out, they’re bizarre.)
Our meal started with bread, again, and while it was delicious–light and airy–I’d rate Moro’s a wee bit higher. The wine–Aglianico del Vulture 2009–was fantastic, though. I picked it for the name–Vulture–and for the fact that it’s a volcanic wine, and while I’m no wine expert, I found it to be full bodied and bright, perfect for pairing with various courses. Did I mention it’s from the Vulture area of Italy? Need I say more? (Love me some vultures…)
We split seven dishes which I’ll present in no particular order (well, ok, the order I took them in, I suppose). First up, the Roasted Aubergine, Black Garlic, Harissa, and Pine Nuts. Smoky, smooth, and earthy, the eggplant dish was one of my favorites, and, without the discerning palate, I couldn’t tell the black garlic from not, but I’m sure it lent to the pungent richness of the dish.
Next, the French Beans, Smoked Wheat, and Tahini & Lemon Dressing. The beans were so bright and crisp and sweet that it felt like early summer had waltzed into the room. Not to mention the perfectly balanced acidic yet bitter-sweet notes of the dressing. And the smoked wheat just added a nice little earthy pop to each bite, like sunshine or an afternoon lying the grass. While many of the other dishes were roasted or braised or cooked down, this one shone for its simplicity and brightness.
On the other side of complexity, the Five Spice Tofu, Tomato & Cardamom Passata, and Braised Aubergine melded together plenty of ingredients and flavors into one cohesive dish. You could serve this to the biggest anti-tofu advocate and they’d love it. The outside cracks when you cut into it, but the interior of the tofu is soft and almost cheese-like. On the bottom, the eggplant oozes earthiness, the passata to the side adds a shine. This dish was a top contender for favorite on everyone’s list.
Next, the Courgette and Manouri Fritters with Lime Yogurt–a sweet little fried pop of summer, I’m jonesing to recreate these at home. Can’t be too hard with my Fry Daddy, right? I love it when I can eat a fritter that isn’t oozing oil–these were almost dry on the outside, hot and steamy on the inside with that great fried crunchy exterior. Loved the lime yogurt dipping sauce too. Perfect at a nice dinner like this or with a few beers on the porch. Look for a veganized recipe on the blog this summer for sure.
We also ordered two fish dishes in addition to the veg options, one being the Seared Organic Prawns, Sumac Feta, Fennel, and Pernod. As with the sardines, I show some ignorance when it comes to prawns–how much am I supposed to eat?–but that aside, these prawns popped with a rich, Mediterranean feel. The color itself was enough to transport you to warmer shores, but the sumac and feta solidified the feeling. I can’t claim to be an expert in prawns, but these were juicy and seemed to be cooked perfectly, and their sauce was divine. I should have kept a piece of bred around to dredge in it.
Our other seafood dish was the Seared Scallops with Pigs Ears and Black Bean Ginger Sauce (Monica picked off the pig’s ears). The scallops were seared perfectly and the pigs ears were definitely interesting, though mostly just like bacon, and I would have never paired something so delicate with a black bean sauce (the fermentation of the beans would normally seem heavy to me), but the Asian-influenced flavors won me over. Everything on the dish felt hearty and delicate at the same time, kind of like the entire feel of Ottolenghi: lush yet approachable.
I couldn’t not order dessert after eying some of table mates’ choices. And while many were tempting–Guava Compote, Streusel, Cardamom Yogurt, for example–my heart (and the others too) steered back towards the Chocolate Hazelnut Slice with Mahlab and Cherries. I asked the server what mahlab is and his answer only confused me more, but turns out that it’s “an aromatic spice made from the seeds of the St Lucie Cherry.” A spice used in Middle Eastern desserts, Wikipedia says it’s been compared to tasting like a mix between bitter almond and cherry. With no prior experience of it, I’m afraid I couldn’t taste the mahlab as separate from the cherries (which were excellent), but the hazelnut slice was heavenly rich and light and airy and chocolatey all at once. A perfect end to a flawless meal.
Fully wined and dined, we had to send Monica off back home, since freelance work waits for no one, and we then waddled back to the hotel to collapse in bed. It was bittersweet saying goodbye–it’s like you spend an entire day with someone awesome and you feel like you’ve been a part of each other’s life for eons and then, poof, over, down the escalator to the separate subway lines. For never having met a fellow blogger on a blind food date before, our time together was magical–from the food to the conversations–and I’m already trying to figure out how to get back across the pond to hang out again. Next time, maybe a good tromping trip through England or Ireland–whaddya say?
34 – 36 Exmouth Market
London EC1R 4QE
44 (0)20 7833 8336
33-35 Exmouth Market
London EC1R 4QL, United Kingdom
44 (0)20 7713 6550
21-22 Warwick Street
London W1B 5NE, United Kingdom
44 (0)20 7494 9584