Bocca di Lupo – 12 Archer Street, London W1
 
After failing to get a table anywhere in Soho after an exhibition opening the other week, M and I ended up in BdL again, and wondered why we hadn’t just gone there in the first place. I love this place. There’s something about the earthy, unrepentant flavours that you get here which is just incredibly sexy. Don’t go there if you don’t love food. If you don’t know it, it specialises in regional Italian dishes, nearly all of which you’re guaranteed never to have tried. Pretty much everything is available in two sizes, so you can treat it like tapas if, like me, you’re a gluttonous pig and want to taste all of it. You don’t always fancy every dish on the changing menu (I’m glad I’ve tried the foccaccia with lung and spleen simmered in lard with smoked ricotta, but I won’t be trying it again) but there’s always enough that intrigues and then delights to make you feel like raving about it. I used to feel the same way about St John (in Farringdon – there’s also a smaller one in Spitalfields), but now I only ever go there for roasted bone marrow and anchovy toast in the bar. Serving hare leg and mash without gravy, twice, counts as two strikes in my book.
 
This time at BdL (where, incidentally, they might actually have the nicest staff in London) we were bowled over by a frittata with spaghetti & mullet bottarga (roe), a kind of ultimate picnic dish from Campania comprising both breakfast and lunch. I really enjoyed the porcini and fontina arancini, though they could have done with quite a lot more porcini. Our favourite dishes were two very, very different sausages which actually made us pause in our gossiping and stare at each other – rustic pork and foie gras sausage with farro & porcini from Trentino was coarse and punchy with none of the smooth finesse you’d expect from foie gras, while cotechino with lentils and fig mostarda from Emilia-Romagna was soft and delicate, almost patéish – both completely opposite from what we had expected but both obscenely delicious. Though we didn’t have it on this occasion, I think it’s worth mentioning what I think is the best dessert I’ve tasted in a long time, which is sanguinaccio – a sweet paté of pig’s blood and chocolate from Abruzzo. My friend S and I tried it the first time we ever went to BdL, and we’re both still tiresomely going on about it. It’s like a chocolate pot – sort of a solid mousse, or a cold ganache – but rather than becoming cloying and over-rich halfway down, the blood cuts through the sweetness of the chocolate and gives it a freshness that S first mistook for herbs. I suppose you could imagine a slightly metallic edge to it if you tried hard enough. It is simply one of the most miraculous marriages of flavour I’ve ever experienced. They serve it with sourdough bread (yawn), which I think unnecessary, and for some reason they insist on topping it with uncooked pine nuts, which I think is just perverse, but others disagree. I just pick them off and scrape it all out with a spoon. Divine.
 
The wine list is also very good, but one of the best things about BdL is the staff (did I mention the staff?), all of whom know all about the food, how it’s made, what’s in it, whether particular dishes will fight against each other, and they can always suggest a decent wine (regional, Italian, naturally), which you can buy by the glass, carafe, or bottle.
 
The exhibition, by the way, was The Real Van Gogh: The Artist and his Letters at the Royal Academy, which is well worth braving the inevitable seething mass. The first two rooms are a bit brown (being before the painter moved to the south of France and discovered colour) and will be a bit frustrating when it’s full, but from room three onwards it is a glorious revelation. Sunflowers, which hangs in the National Gallery and is appallingly lit, pales beside these vivid, luminous canvases, which reproduce that sort of ear-splitting light that you get in the south of France in a way which no camera will ever match. Alongside the paintings are some of the many hundreds of letters that Van Gogh wrote during his life, often to his brother Theo (who bankrolled him for the whole of his ten year career as a painter), in which he talks poignantly about his state of mind and explains what he has been working on, using exquisite little sketches to show his brother how the work is progressing. It is both beautiful and moving. M, who works in contemporary art and was thoroughly gloomy about being dragged along to see it, was completely blown away. If you can, go.

Well for me, they’ve provided one of my most fail-safe crowd-pleaser dinner party dishes. I found this amazing recipe buried in the family section of an Islamic website while going through an enthusiastic middle-Eastern phase in my cooking. It comes originally from the Spring 1997 issue of Saudi Arabia Magazine. Of course if I actually lived in Saudi Arabia, I’d have to get my Dad to drive me to the supermarket to buy the ingredients, since, as a woman, it would be illegal for me to be in charge of a car, though I’d sure as hell be allowed to cook. This is a fantastically aromatic dish, and ridiculously simple to make, though it’s not for the weak-hearted (oil, yoghurt and mayonnaise? It’s like something you might feed a rich but loathesome husband in the hope that it would eventually do him in and you could run away to Lebanon with his Porsche and all of his money) – but to hell with it.

Fakhitha Bel Laban (leg of lamb with yoghurt)  

1 whole leg lamb

350g yoghurt

2 tbsp tomato paste

4-6 cloves garlic, crushed

1 tsp each of black pepper, cardamom (I use whole pods and bash them in a mortar to get about a tsp of seeds out, then discard the pods), cinnamon, cumin, saffron

pinch salt

9 tbsp corn oil (though I’ve used basic olive oil before and it’s actually fine)

3 tbsp mayonnaise

Clean the meat, slash with a sharp knife at regular intervals and bung in a roasting tin. Mix all the other ingredients together thoroughly to make a peach-coloured goo, then smear slightly more than half of it all over the leg (use your hands, it’s the most efficient way). It should be sitting in a small puddle of the yoghurt mixture. Cover the dish with foil and put in the oven at 175 degrees centigrade until cooked (about 20 minutes per half kilo, plus 20 minutes). Serve with a salad of flat parsley leaves, mint leaves, roughly shredded gem lettuce (optional) and chopped tomato and cucumber (a light, lemony dressing works with this) and some fresh bread. I live in a very Turkish area – those big flat pide loaves work very well, otherwise a good French baguette will do, just something that can soak up the juices.

This isn’t strictly a blog post but a feature I wrote last year, which was spiked by the newspaper I work for when it missed its peg. A Razor, A Shiny Knife do such great things though (and I admit to falling slightly in love with the guy who runs it, or at least with his monogrammed shirt cuffs) that I decided to post it. And I spent a day writing the damned thing.

I am seated at a banqueting table in a dimly lit room, surrounded by elegantly attired strangers. A swathe of flowers covers the centre, there are sculptures, candles, cut glass, silver. One end of the room is adorned with balloons. But everything is black. We wear black, my martini is black, this thing on my plate, which glistens like a slab of onyx (though I swear I saw it wobble), is black. It’s all a bit disconcerting.

This is the Black Banquet, a concept dreamed up by New York food-wranglers A Razor, A Shiny Knife. Held at the House of St Barnabas-in-Soho, a magnificent Georgian townhouse in London, it was the first in a planned series which Michael Cirino and Daniel Castaño hope to stage in Tokyo, Barcelona, LA, Miami, San Francisco and New York. “Each is going to be different. LA is going to have a very mid-centuries feel – an LA Story kind of thing,” explains Cirino when I meet him, jet-lagged and oven-fatigued, the day before the banquet. “We’re talking to the owners of a mansion in Bel Air that was owned by a famous film director. He shot his wife and then she shot him when he failed to kill her. We want that meal to feel like the dark side of LA. In New York we’re in talks with this mercantile exchange floor on Wall Street. We wanted to have the dinner on Wall Street because the 80s were the last time that New York felt dangerous.” The London dinner had a vaguely Dickensian feel – the aperitif of Hot Gin Punch was taken from the book Drinking with Dickens.

Despite their evident love of spectacle, for Cirino, in real life a contract negotiator and Castaño, a professional chef who starts up restaurants (his most recent project, Emilia Romagna, in Bogota, won a La Barra award for best new restaurant in Colombia) it’s all about the food. Their story started one Sunday in Brooklyn, when no-one would give them a table.

“There was this park that had free concerts on Sundays, so we’d go down there, and 10 or 15 people would show up, and 15 people don’t fit in restaurants that easily so we’d go to somebody’s house. And that became a conversation about food, and over the the summer our dinners became more and more elaborate,” says Cirino. These foodie evenings evolved into whole days of social cooking. “Daniel serves people all the time, he didn’t want to serve food on weekends, he’d want to cook with people and be social,” Cirino explains. “It wasn’t about having dinner, it was about making dinner and trying new things out.”

This is all a far cry from the theatre of the black banquet however, for which, when I meet him, Cirino has just returned from persuading a curmudgeonly academic at University College London to let him put blackberries into liquid nitrogen (Castaño is absent, opening another restaurant). It takes a singular sort of person to get from chummy pizza-making in Brooklyn to black jelly and sous-vide beef in an unknown kitchen in London. Casually explaining how to make the perfect poached egg, Cirino bandies around words like ‘immersion circulator’ as if it’s the most natural thing in the world. It makes you feel like a rank amateur.

The idea of a black banquet isn’t new. In 1511, the dining club The Company of the Trowel held a banquet to honour the marriage of Pluto, god of the underworld, and Proserpine. Guests entered through the hinged jaws of a serpent and the food was made to resemble foul creatures such as scorpions and frogs. On February 1st 1783 (the beginning of Lent), the notorious bon viveur and France’s first restaurant critic Grimod de la Reyniere hosted a black banquet at which choir boys burnt funeral incense and the table bore a catafalque (the platform used to support a coffin), while each guest had his own coffin placed behind his chair. The invitations were bordered in black like funeral notices – Louise XVI is said to have acquired one to frame. For Cirino, however, once again it comes down to the food.

“For me, the idea of black food is interesting because it robs you of the ability to know what you’re about to eat,” he says. “Food is visual. You look at food; you immediately sense what it’s going to taste like. You look at beans and think, ‘that’s going to taste like what I think beans taste like’. But if you hide it behind a lack of colour, a lack of comfortable shape, it becomes two separate things. It’s a piece of art on the plate, then it’s a flavour that was hidden from you until the moment it comes into your mouth or you were able to smell it.”

When I go to tap the slab of onyx with my knife, it slides effortlessly through, revealing whiteness underneath. A taste, and my mouth is full of salt and citrus – fish pate with confit lemons, encased in a dark soy sauce jelly. Cirino admits, introducing it to the guests, that this dish was a bit of a disaster. The high salt content of the soy reacted unexpectedly with the gelatine, he explains, and caused some jellies to collapse into little shiny black puddles. It’s also too salty. But it is one of seven courses, most of which work, despite a dozy moment on the part of one of the kitchen assistants (none of whom are trained chefs) who bought exactly the wrong kind of fish – an error discovered about an hour before plating. A starter of brioche crostini, dyed with squid ink, with soft cheese, caviar and blackberry is delicious and oyster soup served in the shell with a deep fried black oyster on the side (squid ink in a light tempura batter) is generally agreed to be a triumph. My favourite is the blue-yolked thousand-year-old duck egg wrapped in potash, but I’m in a minority. 

My fellow diners, all food-obsessives with the exception of an occult novelist and his grumpy girlfriend, who probably expected something else, are enchanted. “I always have great sympathy for people doing such novel ideas,” says Steve, “so I take off my ‘high end food critic’ hat and just enjoy the experience, which was great.” Another, Susan, who happily ate absolutely everything including the medium rare beef, despite usually being a vegetarian, agreed: “I truly think anyone who tries to do something creative like this should be lauded.” 

For Cirino, exhausted but exhilarated back in the kitchen afterwards, he’s just thrilled that people are interested enough to come and try things. “Black was always uncomfortable for people. We’ve been making a few of these dishes for about a year and a half and people are like, ‘Why is my shrimp fried black?’ and we’d be like, ‘That’s the way I wanted it,’ and they’re like, ‘But it doesn’t look good,’ and we’re like, ‘Yeah, it looks gorgeous.’ We serve this one shrimp dish on a custard of green curry that is a bright, pungent green and there’s a black prawn sitting on it wrapped in chives like a hoop. People would say, ‘It looks inedible,’ and I’d be like, ‘Did you put it in your mouth yet?’ And they would and they’d say, ‘That’s the best fried shrimp I’ve ever had. And I was like, ‘Now shut the fuck up.’”

This dish, which J ordered at Trattoria Garga in Florence (see previous post) was so perfect that as a direct result of tasting it I bought the restaurant’s cookbook, Once Upon a Tuscan Table, by Sharon Oddson Gargani with Rena Bulkin. The savoury meltingness of the cavolo nero is out of this world. Here is my paraphrasing of the recipe:

Easy, theoretically. Put 3/4 lb spaghettini (it’s in American measures) on to boil. Wash 12 leaves of cavolo nero, remove the central stalk, dry well and rip each leaf into two or three pieces. Slice two cloves of garlic, saute in 1/2 cup olive oil on medium heat until golden, then turn up heat to high and toss in the leaves, saute for 3-4 mins until crisp. Stir in 1/4 tsp cracked red pepper and immediately take off heat. Drain spaghettini well when al dente, then add to the pan with the leaves, toss with tongs, add salt to taste and saute for 1 min over a high heat. Scoff with three friends, or just one if you’re not Italian and don’t plan to embark on an enormous plate of meat immediately afterwards.