A couple of weeks ago, when the weather was almost as shit here as it is now, I spent a few days in Venice on a job. It was bloody great. I didn’t love Venice when I first visited for work, for the opening weekend of the Biennale last year – too many bridges, too many tourists and infuriatingly unreliable wifi. It was as if it had been built entirely as a theatre backdrop and no-one had actually considered how it might function as a city where you might want to, I don’t know, buy groceries, or send an email, though it is astonishingly well co-ordinated for having an affair. Just FYI.

But then in April, I went back with friends to a rainy city which completely charmed me with its absurdly higgledy-piggledy streets, most of which have one of only about eight names (especially when they’re right next to each other but don’t actually reach the same point), and its cute little restaurants and bars. It helped that I made some new friends who live there, Diana from Mexico and Grazina from Lithuania, who have since introduced me to some of their favourite places, which is the point of this post. So, despite Venice’s reputation for shit food at outrageous prices, here are some really great places to go. NOTE this slightly doubles up with a feature I wrote which came out yesterday in The Times, about Titian’s Venice. If you want check it out, it’s here: http://thetim.es/MH8JTy (£)

Restaurants

Bancogiro, Sottoportego del Banco Giro 122, Rialto Market

A modern, airy little osteria with friendly staff and delicious food at a price that belies its enviable, central location. Within the Rialto Market, which has been a working market since 1097. I had the Venetian antipasti misti for 12E, which is entirely fish-based and DELICIOUS – a sort of creamy baccalau, which is great on bread with a slice of sweet tomato, a very typical Venetian dish of sardines with onions, fresh, steamed squid and anchovies. Venice is famous for fish – it’s really worth visiting the Rialto market to look at the fish mongers there, and the beautiful fruit and vegetables. It’s on most mornings until 1pm.

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Ai Promessi Sposi, Calle dell’Oca, Cannaregio

This is a really local restaurant with traditional Venetian fish and meat dishes to die for. If your Italian is up to it, just ask them to bring you a couple of plates of whatever’s good and go with it. My favourite things were some perfect scallops, a gorgeous dish of tiny shrimp, dipped briefly in a very light batter and fried – exactly the same as whitebait, but with shrimp – and a tomatoey moules mariniere which I wanted to drink. I didn’t photograph much, because I was too busy troughing.

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La Zucca, Calle del Tintor (at Ponte de Megio), Santa Croce

Vegetarians, especially those who don’t eat fish, get pretty short shrift in Venice so this place is a haven. The sweet and sour pumpkin pie has to be tried to be believed.

Bars

Taverna del Campiello Remer, Campiello del Remer, near Campo San Giovanni Crisostomo

Not the easiest place to find but worth it – duck down a completely unmarked, unpromising alleyway next to a shop just off the Campo San Giovanni Crisostomo and then don’t lose your nerve even though it looks like you’re heading for nothing. It’s a friendly little pub which sits on its own little square on the canal, looking across to the Rialto Market. Gather around the well head in the centre of the campiello and have a Venetian classic spritz. There’s a sort of graduation of spritz – the easiest to drink is Aperol, which is the sweetest and a sort of virulent orange colour, then Campari, which is more bitter and pinker, then the real stalwarts go for Cinar, which is like cough medicine and a disgusting brown colour. I love it. Not everyone will.

Timon, Fondamenta della Misericordia (some maps call this part Fondamenta degli Ormesini, it’s the same stretch)

For a really local experience, head further into Cannaregio and far off the tourist trail for cheap drinks and a cordially riotous atmosphere. When it gets busy, in good weather everyone just perches willy-nilly on the edge of the canal. They have really nice cicchetti – Venetian tapas served in almost every bar and Enoteca – the best being the three different types of baccalau on bread. They do the creamy one but also more chunky arrangements – the one with tomato is particularly good.

Alla Vedora (AKA trattoria Ca’ D’Oro), Calle del Pistor, Cannaregio

You can book a table at this famous local place just off the Strada Nove, but it’s more fun to perch at the bar or stand outside with an ombra (a tiny glass of local wine from jugs on the bar, specify rosso or bianco) for 50 cents (I know! I know! that’s like, 40p!) and a plate of their amazing cichetti. They are generally considered to make the best polpette di carne – breaded meatballs – in the city; they are crisp on the outside and cloudy and light on the inside. Don’t expect more than grunts from the staff though; if you’re not a regular, you’re just a tourist.Image

Bar, Campo Due Pozzi, Castello

I have absolutely no idea what the name of this place is. It’s an absolutely ordinary local bar, but far from everything remotely touristy and with a propensity to get pretty busy and raucous and really fun. Diana put it best: “If I’m going to go to a bar where I don’t want to meet anyone I know, then that’s the bar I go to.” Like I said, Venice is well set up to misbehave.

Usually, I’m shit at making salads. It ought to be easy, it’s just a bunch of leaves and bits of healthy stuff, but somehow mine tend to turn out like the sort of thing you might create when you get to the office canteen salad bar at 3pm, when most of it has either run out or wilted tragically. This time though, I struck it lucky, having had something almost completely unlike it in a restaurant a while back, but finding myself thwarted in Tesco when I tried to get the ingredients to recreate it. This is what I actually ended up with.

Rocket
Peas
Mange tout
Celery
Beansprouts
Granny Smith apple
A little bit of truffle oil

Cook the peas and mange tout briefly and then plunge them into cold water (pref with ice but it’s not essential. You just want them to be cold and still crisp). Chop the celery and the apple into smallish bitey pieces and mix everything together by hand. Drizzle on the truffle oil and mix again just before serving. You don’t need much but that unique, impossibly smooth metallic aroma has the effect of pulling together the strong, diverse flavours of the apple, celery and rocket while at the same time somehow tempering them. It’s quite a lot like spring on a plate.

PS: I’m slightly obsessed with truffle oil at the moment. It’s pricey, but you need such a tiny amount to stamp its presence on a dish that I’ve had the same bottle for months. Today, a very wee dash went in the pan with a little butter for scrambled eggs, along with a grind or two of pepper and a pinch of sea salt, all scoffed indecently quickly with 2 buttered crumpets and a slice and a half of smoked salmon. Joy. Followed by guilt, and the gym. Whatever.

During the summer, at a birthday picnic for my friend Liz, I was given a small but ingenious snack which I’ve been meaning to recreate ever since. I’ve always been a big fan of the Great British Sausage Roll and considered them unimproveable, until I tried these little beauties, invented by Liz’s elegant pal Stella. They are simple, but gloriously effective. Be warned, however: six is too many, especially when followed by mince pies and cheese. I spent at least an hour and a half lying in bed on Christmas eve thinking I was going to either be sick or melt into the sheets leaving nothing but a smear of grease.

Stella’s Sausage Swirls

Take one 500g block of ready-made puff pastry (life’s too short for making puff pastry at home, in my humble opinion). Roll it out into a square about 4mm thick. Take about 450g of good quality sausagemeat (we bought it from the brilliant butcher local to my work, Hussey’s of Wapping Lane, which makes its own sausages), give it a good squidge with your hands to mush it up a bit and then, using your fingers, spread it all over the pastry square until it’s broadly evenly covered, leaving a border of raw pastry of about 1cm on one side and about an inch on the other. Then, taking the shorter border as your starting edge, roll the square into a spiral tube, as if making a swiss roll. Brush the wide border with milk and press to seal, then brush the whole thing with milk. Using a very sharp knife, slowly slice into swirls of about 1cm thick and place them flat on a baking tray, leaving a bit of space between them so they can puff up. Stick in a medium oven and cook for a while, I think I did mine for about 40 mins in the end, on about 180ish, but just keep an eye on them after about 20 mins and see how you go. It’s a good idea to err on the medium side and leave them in for longer, as the sausage meat will stay moist, and the pastry is less likely to burn. Remove from the oven, leave to cool for ten minutes or so (no more, you want them warm) then pass round with glasses of dry sherry.

A Little of What You Fancy, 464 Kingsland Road, E8 4AE

In the six and a half years I’ve lived in Dalston, it has gone from what one west-dwelling colleague once described to me as ‘your pungent suburb’, to officially the most fashionable spot on the face of the planet. Almost every Friday and Saturday night I come home to find my doorstep, which is flanked by a trendy club and an increasingly busy bar, littered with slender, gazelle-like young people, heavy of eye makeup and musical of laugh, fagging away (that’s ‘smoking’, Americans) like mad, having a simply lovely time. It’s very sweet, but it’s also a bit wearisome, sometimes, so when a little restaurant calling itself A Little of What You Fancy opened up a few doors away, I feared a fashion flashpoint rather than what I sorely wished for, which is a lovely local restaurant with friendly staff which is serious about food. Astonishingly, I got the latter.

It was a late lunch (at 2.50pm, the kitchen closing at 3), so I thought I’d make it easy on them and myself with a simple goat’s cheese salad and a glass of red. What I got, to steal a turn of phrase from commenter Al Watt, was a sort of meta-goat’s cheese salad.

Fabulous tomatoes, saturated with flavour; the goat’s cheese just warm enough, a generous dollop of home-made pesto on the top (perfect foil) and a simple salad of baby leaves and rocket – not too much, not all stalky and difficult to eat. Delicious Rioja, one of their ‘Christmas specials’. They were hugely friendly, and not remotely grumpy about me arriving about 4 minutes before the kitchen closed. Giddy with happiness after my salad, I asked to see the desserts, and spotted the warm mince pie, which I requested with a wedge of stilton (not a combination on the menu). Not an eyelid was batted. If I’m going to pick holes, the mince pie could have been both a bit warmer and significantly less sweet, but other than that it was delightful.

The room, simple white and a bit of brick, is warm and welcoming, the staff are absolutely charming, the table decorations are really sweet (currently a little stout glass full of soil with a tiny festive spruce planted in it) and though it’s hard to tell whether the vaguely countrified chaos of fruit crates and farm sacks by the counter is artful or not, it’s not annoying. It’s just lovely. And it’s all about 4 minutes walk from my flat. So if you don’t mind, I’d rather you didn’t come here and clutter it up. It’s mine.

As usual, I’ve eaten out too much this last few months (if such a thing were possible, I’m not personally sure it is – rather like there being too much cheese. Can’t get my head around it) which is why, conversely, I haven’t blogged much. Making excuses about being too busy is much easier than sitting down and judging stuff. But now I find myself in, on a Saturday evening, and blogging is more fun than cleaning, so I’m going to bite the bullet and try to post on a few places, all in London, which have made me more or less happy in the last month or so, starting with:

Wapping Food (at the Wapping Project), Wapping Hydraulic Power Station, Wapping Wall, London E1W 3SG

Just down the road (albeit quite a long road) from my office, I’m only really now beginning to appreciate the WP, which is housed in the main hall of the old Wapping Hydraulic Power Station. This is a spectacular building, with huge windows along one side and mysterious, heavy machinery ranged down the other, covered in tempting dials. I brought my dear old friend JS here because he lives in Leicester and though he lived in London for years, I knew that he wouldn’t have been (why would you, it’s in Wapping) or have seen anything like it. It’s a really brilliant place to bring people who like cool things or whom you want to impress, especially as you can now get there on the Overground. It’s astonishingly pleasantly lit for such a massive room, all sparkly bits, candles and uplighting but then it is also (actually mostly) an art gallery, so the owner, Jules, has a pretty good eye. They’ve done some amazing projects here including Richard Wilson’s Butterfly. Remember to go out of both the doors at the back of the dining hall and have a look at the exhibition space (down) and the roof (up).

We had a really superb dinner – grilled squid and fish stew to start, both very simple but really fantastic; proper taste explosion sort of stuff. We both plumped for venison, which was unctuous and wonderful and elicited ‘wow’s from both of us. I can’t help thinking that it’s a tiny bit overpriced (main course venison was £19.50, which I think is a bit steep, though I’ve looked back on the website since and venison pie, which isn’t quite the same thing, is about 17 quid which somehow I think is more reasonable). The staff are very formal, but very sweet and the presentation of the food is faultless, really pleasing. I suppose in the end that’s the point; fine dining with fine service and really bloody nice glassware, in a spot you wouldn’t expect it.

One word of warning however: it has quite an annoying website. If you want the phone number, DON’T CLICK ANYTHING. It’s at the end of the scrolling text along the bottom of the home page. Or, it’s here: 020 7680 2080. If you want to eat after about 8.30pm you’ll probably need to call and book, because all the people who live in the amazing warehouse flats looking out on to the river come home from their jobs in the City, and it’s more fun eating here than firing up the unused Neff oven which probably still has the instruction manual sitting disconsolately under the grill.

69-71 Dean Street, London W1D 3SE

Last week I went to the Dean Street Townhouse and I fear I may have tarnished my honour. Those readers who have not given up on this blog due to lax updating on my part may remember that a few months ago at Gautier I was alarmed to find myself being placed at a table next to my former boss and his wife, who is our chief film critic (which makes me technically her editor), who are genuinely delightful but I don’t want to make up a four unexpectedly, this isn’t the 1920s and we’re not playing tennis. I performed a polite hissy fit for our poor waiter and escaped to another floor for a thoroughly enjoyable dinner with SB. SB is tall, handsome, and a good ten years older than me. Last week though, in the Dean Street Townhouse, which is a very different sort of establishment, I met up with the lovely JM, who is short, handsome, and a good ten years older than me. Now as every journalist knows, two is early adoption and three is a rapidly growing trend, so I was mildly distressed to find that once again, we were seated a mere table away from my former boss and our chief film critic, thus unwittingly providing evidence of my own moral turpitude. I fear scandal threatens. One more incident such as this (and I have, I realise with some embarrassment, no shortage of suitable companions to assist my good name’s inevitable descent into squalor) and I’m going to find myself saddled with a reputation. In addition to any other reputation I may already have acquired. I shall be heavy with shame.

They’ll have to catch me first though, which will be tricky since I almost certainly won’t bother going back to the Dean Street Townhouse. Not for the food, at least.

It’s a nice enough room, classically clubby with dark wood, red leather banquettes and booths, candles and low, warm lighting – I particularly liked the pots of rosemary on the bar. The bar staff, indeed all the staff, are charming and helpful, though I object quite strongly to being addressed as ‘boys and girls’ by anyone, least of all a maitre d. The martinis are, as I had been previously advised, very good – I ordered off-menu and they didn’t hesitate – though I feel wistful for an old fashioned martini glass of the 1980s Bond sort, rather than this current fad for little absinthe-style goblets, which might well be very Left Bank but is not terribly West End. You can’t have it both ways.

Mika, the pop singer, and a ‘very successful’ (his own words, overheard) American record producer sat at the next table, which was mildly interesting once I’d finally realised that he was a famous person and not just another of those pouting little fashion boys who hang around smoking on my doorstep in London’s Trendy Dalston of a Friday night.

And you know what, the food was ok. If you went to a British boarding school and were remotely nostalgic about it, then it’s probably even pretty good. I had a steak, I now recall, having googled the menu to jog my memory. It came very rare, as I requested. The chips were rather anaemic and I ate, I think, three. My twice baked smoked haddock soufflé starter was exactly what you would expect – lightish, cheesy and fishy, with absolutely no surprises. I’m looking at the dessert menu right now and none of it is ringing any bells, so I may or may not have had one. I just can’t remember. But unusually for me, this is nothing to do with the martini, or the wine, or the three further martinis I had later at the Ivy Club (also in those weird little glasses. Where have all the martini glasses gone, that’s what I want to know. I’ll have them if they’re going cheap, I can make use of them, no problem). It’s down instead to the total lack of ambition in any of the dishes on the menu. It was just so boring. British food – fish and chips, steak, Dover sole, mutton pie – was exciting a few years ago. We were discovering it anew, thanks to the likes of Mark Hix and Fergus Henderson and getting excited about the rich produce of these small islands. But now, everyone with a gas ring’s doing it, and it’s become lazy. Comfort food is all very well, but done without even a modicum of flair at restaurant prices it becomes almost insulting. Mince and potatoes for fuck’s sake. I can do that at home. I can do it at home and it wouldn’t cost me £11.50, but I wouldn’t even bother to do it there, because it’s dull. It’s not even amusing, or ironic. It’s just mediocre and unimaginative. So buck your ideas up, Dean Street Townhouse, or it won’t just be my reputation taking a dive.

Uova Italia

October 22, 2010

As I think I’ve mentioned before, I get bored with my breakfasts quite often. Today I JUST SNAPPED after about two weeks of spinach and feta omelettes, and raided my cupboards. Which were nearly bare, but as a result I made a pleasing discovery. Which is:

Softly scrambled eggs + basil pesto + grainy toast = breakfast in the Tuscan sun despite evident frost on the rooftops and the dark threat of rain. 

I might try a little stir of harissa next time and see if I can get myself transported to Fez. It would definitely be an improvement on Dalston.

After a hideous week of Frieze art fair, being ill and relaunching the features section of my newspaper, my dear friend L and I escaped the madness on Sunday night and went to Andrew Edmunds. AE is the quintessential Soho establishment – cramped, candlelit, friendly and with a bloody brilliant wine list. The food is very nice, but it’s not really the point – you go for the atmosphere. Having said that, despite the fact that we were too busy bitching to do anything but inhale our dinner, we did pause for a moment to appreciate L’s particularly tasty starter of Gorgonzola and pear risotto, which, having an unexpected night in on Tuesday, I was inspired to recreate. Approximately. It wasn’t completely successful but I think it worked pretty well.

In butter, cook up about half a pear, chopped into modest chunks, on a low heat until softish (about 15-20 mins) then put it aside while you make the rice, which I cooked with a bit of garlic. The garlic might have been unnecessary. Had I had any white wine open I probably would have put a slug in with the stock, which I think would have refined it slightly. When the rice was cooked I stirred in the pear and the cheese – about the same volume as the pear, and a small amount of grated Parmesan. Annoyingly, Waitrose didn’t have any Gorgonzola, darling, so I made do with dolcelatte. It’s not as good, too mild and too soft – Gorgonzola would probably retain its structural integrity a bit more (i.e. not melt) but you get the idea. The key is to then stir in a handful of finely chopped fresh parsley, which lifts all the flavours and stops it from being too cloying. Needless to say I forgot to do this. Still, it gave me very entertaining dreams.

A guilty pleasure

August 27, 2010

I know it’s wrong, but there’s nothing, NOTHING quite like Tuc biscuits liberally slathered with lashings of Laughing Cow. That heavenly combination of salty, flaky wafer and thick, white stickiness that coats the mouth and tastes of nothing but cold is irresistable. I feel like Marie Antoinette in her mock dairy at Versailles – breasts trembling, milk pail swinging, all a-quiver with the wicked, plebian subversion of it all. I know it’s dirty, but no-one can see us down here…

Working in Wapping has its advantages (answers on a postcard as to what these are, and yes, they will fit) but a range of plentiful, good lunch options is not one of them. Recently I’ve started doing a bit of home cooking and bringing lunch to work, rather than working until 3pm and then rushing to Waitrose snarling with hunger and ending up back at my desk with a bizarre selection of unrelated foodstuffs, one of which is nearly always cocktail salamis. Today’s home-made, self-assembly lunch was particularly successful, having cooked the meat last night, though I would say that if you can make and eat it at home, it is even better fresh, because the lamb stays crispy.

Take a pair of scissors to a reasonably sized hunk of lamb – I used scrag, which is unbelievably cheap, but really tricky to get off the bone with shit knives (I ended up stewing the rest of it on the bone overnight – won’t know until tonight whether that little chuck-in-what’s-in-the-cupboard exercise worked or not) and cut it into little tiny pieces. Fry them on a high heat until vaguely crispy. Take a wrap bread or pitta, smear it thickly with humus and chuck on a few strips of cucumber, some halved cherry tomatoes, and tons of fresh parsley and mint (and basil, if you happen to have just bought yet another plant having killed the last one). Pile on the cooked lamb and sprinkle liberally with pomegranate seeds. Roll up as tightly as possible and eat, looking smugly around at your colleagues.

*tip – if making at work, don’t put the wrap in the fridge with the rest of the bits and pieces, because if it gets cold it will become brittle and break.