Sunday, October 26, 2008

Vacation! Pizza Express

450 Strand

We were in London gearing up for a comedy show later that evening in Covent Garden and our friends suggested that we meet up at PizzaExpress, which is situated just across from Charing Cross tube station. With over 300 locations across the U.K., the chain is like a more smartly dressed Pizza Hut.

My girlfriend Dawn admitted that she has a goal of eating at each and every PizzaExpress restaurant in the country, but honestly I didn't find their pies to be that different from what we get at, say, Donatos, although the ambience was a few notches above your basic American pizza joint. And my gosh was it busy - but then I guess every single restaurant in London would be hopping at 6 p.m. on a Friday night.

After sampling my pizza - which was fine but nothing special - I didn't think I'd even bother to write up a review, but the photos turned out really well, so I decided to let them do the talking.

The Mixed Salad

Margherita Pizza, nice and simple

Banoffee Pie & vanilla bean ice cream - this photo is for my friend Jennifer, who couldn't get enough of it when she was in England last month

Pizza Express on Urbanspoon

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Vacation! Terre à Terre

Terre à Terre
71 East Street
Brigthton, Sussex

Vegetarians rarely get the chance to indulge in haute cuisine - what with the questioning of cooking practices/processes and scouring ingredient lists with a fine tooth comb, so I had been looking forward to visiting this posh vegetarian restaurant in The Lanes of Brighton.

Classically-trained chefs Amanda Powley and Philip Taylor opened Terre à Terra 19 years ago as a means to push the boundaries of traditional cooking while adhering to their own meat-free ethic. Their diligence has paid off; the restaurant is one of the most successful in the United Kingdom, continually retaining prestigious AA Two Rosettes and Michelin stars.

The restaurant prides itself on quality, locally-sourced ingredients and has an impressive organic and biodynamic (the ideal of ecological self-sufficiency) wine selection. I was unfamiliar with most of the wines so our helpful server brought over a sampling for us to try. After some hemming and hawing I decided upon the 2007Zuccardi Torrontes, a delicately sweet organic dessert wine from Argentina.

Everything on the menu sounded exquisite - so much so that and it was almost too difficult to decide on a single dish, but since we were only in Brighton for one night I couldn't possibly try them all. I did, however, do the next best thing: I opted for the tapas sampler platter (£19/$38), which offered a few bites each from a selection of their starters and entrees.

The Terre à Tapas Platter

The first item I tried on the platter was the "Musto Gusto," fresh-made focaccia bread topped with feta, kalamata olive tapinade, sun-dried tomatoes and cippolini onions. It was fantastic and an excellent start to the platter.

Next up I sampled the "Big Tom," tiny ratatouille and ebony oil served with warm tomato consommé, thyme-tomato jelly and aubergine hashe. It certainly sounds fancy enough, but honestly it tasted very similar to my own home-made tomato sauce, only saltier, most likely the result of over-salting the soaking water for the aubergines.

Over salting seemed to be a theme on the platter, at least where the aubergines were concerned. Every item that included aubergine was choking with salt; the aubergine caviar and aubergine custard inedible as a result. Two bites was all I could manage before moving on.

The "Better Batter & Lemony Yemini Relish" was slightly better in execution, even if the buttermilk-soaked, chip-shop battered halloumi looked an unappetizing lump of dough topped with tired pineapple. I found the lemon relish bitterly sour, and the sea salad had a fishy taste from what I assume must have been flakes of nori. Only the brightness of the mint pea hash rescued this fried goat cheese selection from the rubbish heap.

Topped with shredded raw vegetables and tossed with umboshi plum white miso and rice wine dressing, the smoked soba noodle dish was definitely my favorite on the plate. The balance between the raw, crunchy veggies, the soft noodles and creamy smoked tofu was outstanding, although I could have done without the pomegranate bead garnish; the sharp zesty bursts felt like party crashers in this ginger-infused selection.

Rounding out the tapas platter were a few seemingly ala carte items: vodka tomatoes (nice, but easily made at home), wasabi cashews, garlicky hard-boiled quails eggs and a simple salad of rocket, shaved emmenthal and toasted sunflower seeds, which tasted slightly burnt.

Steve was a little overwhelmed by the menu, which, with it's many strange-sounding ingredients and odd pairings, was outside his comfort zone. He settled for the "Drunken Dunkerton & Onion Hoopla," which consisted of a twice-baked Cheddar soufflé with noisette butter potato dauphinoise, sauce soubise, finished with dry Dunkertons cider and cream. It came with a side of "fancy" onion rings, which we both thought tasted as though they'd been in the oil for about 30 seconds too long. Crispy is an understatement.

The Drunken Dunkerton & Onion Hoopla

Although I found the food on the night we visited to be somewhat hit-or-miss, I really enjoyed being able to relax in the knowledge that everything on the menu was "safe" for a vegetarian to eat without worry, and for that alone, Terre à Terre is certainly worth a visit.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Vacation! Scoop & Crumb

Scoop & Crumb
5-6 East Street
The Lanes
Brighton, Sussex

Owners Jonathan and Helena Dickson introduced this stylish Scandinavian sandwich shop and ice cream parlour to the Brighton Lanes last year and it is well worth a visit.

We were initially attracted to the bright and cheery building, and when we discovered that they specialized in smørbrød...well, we simply HAD to give it a shot to see if it could stack up against those we enjoyed in Copenhagen several years ago.

The ice cream and smørbrød counter

Steve's first choice of pork loin smørbrød was already sold out, so he opted for Swedish meatballs - which he said tasted exactly like the ones from Ikea. In fact, we suspect that - along with the dishes, glasses and cutlery - they came from Ikea. Ouch.

There were several vegetarian options on the chalkboard, but as soon as I saw the Emmenthaler Smørbrød I knew my decision had been made. Consisting of a thick slice of freshly baked whole wheat bread topped with curly endive, rocket, red onion and tomato, and capped off with generous slices of emmenthal cheese, the emmenthal sandwich is one that I prepare quite often at home - albeit with Ryvita instead of bread. My Danish mother-in-law originally taught me the joy of the ryvita-emmenthaler smørbrød, and this one from Scoop & Crumb would have done her proud. It was perfect.

The Emmenthaler Smørbrød

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Vacation! Motel Schmotel

Motel Schmotel
37 Russell Square
Brighton, Sussex

Knowing our great love for the seaside city of Brighton (we want to retire there!), our dear friends Jane & Paul gifted us an overnight stay at a wonderfully funky bed & breakfast for Steve's birthday. Motel Schmotel, a lovely five-storey Regency town house, is situated just a few minutes walk to the beach, pier and eclectic shopping areas like The Lanes, making it a perfect spot to enjoy our favorite British city.

The B&B may look quaint from the outside, but the rooms inside are bang-up-to-date with contemporary furnishings and flair. The proprietors, Paul & Amsy, are a friendly young couple whose environmentally-friendly ethic is apparent throughout the building: organic cotton bedding, locally-sourced organic food, free-trade coffees and teas, and environmentally-safe personal amenities like soap and shampoo. We were especially pleased to find a small container filled with fresh milk for our tea inside the mini-fridge, instead of the tiny plastic tubs of creamer one usually encounters in hotels and restaurants. It is this eye for detail that has won the B&B several tourist-industry awards since it opened last year.

The rooms at Motel Schmotel might feel small when compared with American-standard hotel rooms, but they are well-planned and comfortable. We were fortunate to have a balcony suite overlooking Regency Square, where we sat and enjoyed a cuppa while watching students from Brighton University wander by.

Our room and balcony

The room was only part of what makes Motel Schmotel such a nice place to stay, however. The list of potential breakfast items had us salivating, and it was very difficult to choose what we wanted. Since we had already booked a table in the finest vegetarian restaurant in the city (more on that next), I knew better than to order a big breakfast the next morning, even though the thought of organic vegetarian sausages and free-range eggs with whole-meal toast certainly appealed. Instead I opted for a sensible breakfast of Scottish porridge oats with wholemeal toast, maple syrup and fresh fruit. Ahhh...

Breakfast in bed!

Scottish porridge oats with maple syrup and fresh fruit. YUM!

Steve's organic fry-up made him a very happy boy

There is so much to do in Brighton that it is difficult to fit in everything, but a visit to the pier is a must. Brighton is first and foremost a seaside city, "London by the Sea" as it is sometimes called. I can easily admit that I'd much rather visit Brighton than London any day. Brighton has everything the capital does - plus the sea! Ok, ok, Brighton may not have the London Eye or Big Ben, but it does have the Royal Pavilion, and one of the best collections of Regency and Victorian architecture in the world. It's also got a fabulous array of independentally-owned shops, restaurants and clubs, and is probably the most tolerant city I've ever encountered. It is little wonder that there is a thriving GLBT community here. And unlike London, everyone is very friendly.

Looking in the window of a pasty shop

Brighton's seafront and pier. Even in less-than-perfect weather, it's the perfect seaside city.

Fish & Chip Shop on Brighton Pier

Steve was craving fishcakes, and I helped him with the chips. Is there anything better than fresh, thick-cut chips fried before your eyes?

The Royal Pavilion at night

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Vacation! The Buck's Head

The Buck's Head
Buck's Head Hill
Meonstoke, Hampshire

Situated in the picturesque Meon Valley in rural Hampshire County, The Buck's Head is a 16th century inn and public house serving delicious country fare that is locally sourced and made predominantly from scratch every day.

The building has a very storied history and until a few years ago was the staging area for traditional Boxing Day fox hunts, which I'm pleased to say have since been banned. This doesn't stop the monied class from continuing their tradition of gathering at the pub for a pint and a meal on Boxing Day - the pub landlord informed us that they served meals to over one thousand last year and are already completely booked again for Boxing Day this year.

It was in the 13th century church next door (yes you read that correctly- it was built in 1230, and I'll have more on it in a later post) that my husband's parents were married some 55 years ago, and The Buck's Head was the site of their wedding reception. It hasn't changed much over the years, barring the 13 months it was under the woeful mismanagement of a chav landlord who nearly ruined the stellar reputation of this wonderful, historic pub. Luckily the current landlord has reversed the ill effects and brought it back to an agreeable state.

The building is blocked into several sections: there is the inn accomodation, part of which used to house stables; the landlord's quarters; the bar; and the dining room. There is also a lovely outdoor beer garden with sturdy picnic tables dotting the grounds, perfect for sipping a pint while the clear, shallow River Meon ripples by a few yards away.

The river can be as dangerous as it is beautiful. Usually less than a foot deep and a few yards wide, in particularly wet seasons it can creep its way into the low-lying pub, to devastating effect. We visited one year just after the inn had reopened following a flood and found ourselves teetering over wooden planks to get to the slightly elevated area of the dining room; the carpeting in the lower section was still squidgy and damp.

The lower section of the rustic dining room

Even though The Buck's Head serves traditional English meals, their menu does not neglect those of us who do not eat meat. They offer six light meals on their pub menu geared toward vegetarians, which include a cheddar or stilton ploughman's, several baguette sandwiches with your choice of filling, and several jacket potatoes (baked potatoes stuffed with a variety of options like cheese, baked beans, coleslaw etc). On their main entrée menu there are three vegetarian options: veggie pasta, lasagna, and something called a vegetable bundle. On top of this they offer a variety of daily specials which are advertised on a chalk board above the fireplace. On the day we visited the vegetarian offering was tomato-onion pie.

I opted for the vegetable bundle, which the landlord described as locally grown vegetables baked inside filo pastry and served with new potatoes, and cooked vegetables, topped with Béchamel sauce. It was very tasty indeed. The pastry was filled with chunky slices of corgette, tomato and mushroom, interspersed with leeks and slivered onions, and the boiled new potatoes were melt-in-your-mouth perfect. The side of vegetables consisted of cooked cos(romaine lettuce), steamed carrots and mashed swede. I'm not much of a fan of swede (known in America as Rutabaga) and could have done without, but since it was there I managed to choke it down with the help of the Béchamel.

The vegetable bundle with a side of tender veggies

My father-in-law chose the meat lasagna with a side of chips.

Steve chose the cottage pie with a side of chips

I'm fairly certain that those chips were of the frozen variety, which is surprising since most if their other offerings were fresh. After the meal the landlord tempted us with a half dozen after dinner treats spelled out on a hand-held chalkboard. We, I guess I should come clean and admit it - I chose - the chocolate-caramel-toffee-crunch. I had no idea what it was, but I knew from the ingredients that I was onto a winner. It was sinfully rich and indulgent, but luckily we were provided with extra spoons so that everyone could have a taste. As I ate the majority of it, I'll probably be working it off on the elliptical machine for the next month, but it was worth every creamy, decadent mouthful.

Chocolate caramel toffee crunch

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Vegetarianism in the United Kingdom

A few weeks ago I was given a British cookbook from the mid-1960's which contained several pages of intelligent and inspiring vegetarian recipes. I shook my head in wonderment, not only because the Brits were already printing non-meat recipes so long ago but also because the cookbook in question was sponsored by the U.K. Dairy Council. That a government entity was revolutionary enough - over 40 years ago - to cater to a minor segment of society is impressive, and that forward thinking nature continues to this day with the government-sanctioned packaging/labeling of foodstuffs. It makes finding vegetarian (as well as other restricted-diet food) items a cinch. Not having to stand around in the supermarket reading ingredient labels is a real plus in my book.

I took my camera to the local ASDA grocery and shot photos of the various ways that vegetarian packaging is shown in England. Here's a sampling:

On packages of nuts and trail mix

On a selection of Indian snacks, made fresh daily in the grocery deli

On a deli-made pizza

This is the list of ingredients available for the made-to-order deli pizzas. The green "V" makes the vegetarian-friendly toppings stand out.

On pots of yogurt: on the left is Fage Total Yogurt, on the right Dannon Activa

Old El Paso refried beans

Pork rib flavored potato chips

Pringles - underneath the depiction of the chips, it says "suitable for vegetarians"

Mince pies display the vegetarian symbol

Even the frozen aisles are helpful!

ASDA is a very large grocery store chain owned by Wal-Mart. It is hellish to try to navigate because (and this is a gross understatement) it is so popular that it nearly always seems to be filled to capacity with shoppers, so anything that gets me out of there quicker is a bonus. Not having to stand in the aisle reading the ingredient lists on packages is a godsend.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Vacation! Pilgrim House

Pilgrim House
Canute Road
Southampton, Hampshire

Although I haven't been able to find out exactly why this nondescript 19th century building is named Pilgrim House, I suspect it was meant to honor the Mayflower and Speedwell pilgrims, who in 1620 sailed to America from Southampton. History books usually cite Plymouth as the point from which the pilgrims set sail, and although it isn't entirely incorrect, it isn't exactly right either. The two ships left Southampton for the New World, but the Speedwell developed a leak and the two ships stopped off at Plymouth for repairs. After a second attempt to set sail, the Speedwell was abandoned and the Mayflower alone made the voyage.

Southampton has a deep nautical history, thanks to a natural occuring phenomena known as a "double tide," which gives the port a longer high tide period and makes the movement of large seafaring vessels easier. Pilgrim House is located at Dock 4 just across the street from the former South Western House - originally a grand luxury hotel for first class passengers of the White Star Line (of which the Titanic is probably the most famous) and now refurbed into posh flats. Whatever the Pilgrim House building used to be is irrelevant - it is now a classy Chinese Restaurant with a twist.

The foyer sports a crystal chandelier and leather settees. Very Posh.

One of the restaurant's dining rooms

The twist being that the restaurant is an all-you-can-eat affair, but instead of large buffet tables of reheated food, the staff at Pilgrim House prepare each item to order. From a list of 75 items, diners can choose whatever they fancy and it is made to order and brought to the table on white china. Of those 75 items, 10 of them are strictly vegetarian and another five can be made vegetarian upon request. It is a clever, cost-saving idea to prepare the food to order because everything comes out piping hot and fresh, and the chance of waste is greatly reduced.

Amazingly, the restaurant charges a mere £6.90 ($13) per person for lunch. While that may seem high by Chinese restaurant standards in the States, it is an astonishing bargain in the U.K. We set to work ordering a plethora of gastronomical goodies:


Vegetarian hot & sour soup, crispy seaweed, and chicken satay with peanut sauce

Main entrees

Garlic French string beans for me, Mongolian beef with chicken fried rice for Steve, and another large helping of crispy seaweed, of which we could eat until we burst it was so good.

vegetarian mixed veggies in white sauce

The food and atmosphere at Pilgrim House are unparalleled, and we have our mate Dave to thank for introducing us to its delights. How he managed to find out about the restaurant is a mystery because they do no advertising and the building itself looks more like a shipping office than a restaurant. Since our introduction several years ago, we make a point to visit Pilgrim House every time we are in England. YUM.

Here is a simple recipe for crispy seaweed, courtesy of BBC Food:
12oz bok choi
30fl oz groundnut oil
1 tsp salt
2 tsp sugar

1. Separate the stalks from the stem of the bok choi and then cut the green leaves from the white stalks.
2. Wash the leaves in several changes of cold water, then drain them thoroughly and dry in a salad spinner.
3. Roll the leaves up tightly, a few at a time, and finely shred them into strips 5mm wide.
4. Spread them out on a baking sheet and put them in an oven preheated to 250F for 15 minutes to dry slightly.
5. They should not be completely dry or they will burn when fried. Remove from the oven and leave to cool. This can be done the day before.
6. Heat a wok over a high heat, then add the oil. When the oil is hot and slightly smoking deep-fry the greens in three or four batches. After about 30-40 seconds, when they turn crisp and green, remove them immediately from the wok and drain well on kitchen paper.
7. Leave to cool.
8. Toss the crispy greens with the salt and sugar.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Vacation! The Toby Carvery

Toby Carvery
Fair Oak Road
Eastleigh, Hampshire

The American "all-you-can-eat" concept has finally taken hold in Blighty in a big way with the Toby Carvery, a popular pub-restaurant chain that offers a traditional roast-meats-and-veggies buffet at very affordable prices.

Usually I shy away from buffets because there are precious few vegetarian items to be had and I feel as though I don't get my money's worth, but at the Carvery - even though the very name illicits thoughts of sliced meats - they have a special vegetarian section that is very well received.

This is my husband's (non-vegetarian) carvery meal

One of the things I really love about England is the enlightened view the British take on vegetarianism. EVERY restaurant offers loads of vegetarian options, and on each restaurant menu there is a prominent "V" symbol by each, allieviating the worry and question asking that usually accompanies my dining out experiences in the States.

It's easy to locate the vegetarian items on this menu

So cheers to the Carvery for offering a vegetarian carvery experience - even though I didn't give it a shot this time around. You see, on the day we visited the Carvery they were offering two lunch specials: either the all-you-can-eat carvery or a Ploughman's with a pint of Stella Artois, each for £5 ($10).

I do love a ploughmans, and when you throw in a pint it's a no-brainer. The ploughman's won.

Readers of this blog will probably see quite a few photos of the ploughman's lunch in the coming weeks because it's one of my favorite meals; so simple and healthy in concept yet so difficult to find back home. I tend to eat a lot of them while I have the chance.

Traditionally a meal prepared for farmers (plow men) by their wives, the ploughman's lunch needed to be able to survive the heat of the day and still satisfy a hearty appetite. It usually consists of crusty bread and butter, a wedge of fresh cheese, a light salad and/or tomatoes, pickled onions or other pickled vegetable, and a piece of fresh fruit - usually an apple - all washed down with a mug of ale. Ahhhhhhh.....

The ploughman's at the Carvery was decent but not a patch on ploughman's past. The bread, while warm and crusty, was a regular, no-nonsense supermarket baguette and although the cheddar cheese was locally-made and gorgeous, there wasn't nearly enough of it. I was surprised to find an orange on the plate instead of an apple, but no biggie - except that the orange was so cold that I couldn't hold it long enough to peel it. I took it away to eat later.

And don't get me started on the pickled onions! I love pickled onions, but only when they are either small enough to eat whole, or I'm given a knife in which to slice them up into managable pieces. At the Carvery, I really struggled to slice the lime-sized onions with the butter knife I was given, and our server disappeared before I could ask for a proper knife. I hacked and sawed, but in the end the onions won.

Still, a ploughman's AND a pint - all for £5 - is a really tasty bargain.