Tuesday, 31 January 2012

London and South-East round-up: the good

Home at last. I'm just back from a rather silly week long jaunt around the country for both work and play. I've stayed at a Premier Inn, a Holiday Inn, two Travelodges and one friend's house, with no more than a couple of nights in one place. I'm not half glad to be home.

It's been an interesting week food-wise though, I've experienced much of what's good about eating on the cheap in Britain; the enthusiastic adoption of foreign cuisines and the rapidly developing street food scene being the primary examples.

On the other hand I've also experienced much of what's bad; the distinctly average offering in most pubs and the proliferation of crappy chains interested only in the bottom line being cases in point.

Other than Silk Road, which got a post all to itself, here are the things that were good, and if I can be bothered I might write about those that were bad too:

Franco Manca, Westfield Stratford City

There's much to dislike about the new Westfield mega-mall adjacent to the Olympic site at Stratford, if, like me, you're really not that enthused by shopping. Or by corporate-style marketing nonsense, which seemed to be in overdrive in an area of the centre named the 'Great Eastern Market', and described as a 'modern take on a traditional market'. If that's the case then a 'modern take' on a 'traditional market' means not actually like a market at all, more like an area of a shopping centre where the units are small and everything is hideously overpriced. Great.

Now I've got that rant out of my system I'll have to give credit where it's due. There is much to like about Westfield Stratford City from an eating perspective. All of the usual suspects are there, but a significant proportion of the extensive food offer is given over to small London based businesses. Businesses like Franco Manca who have opened their third outlet here.

Franco Manca are widely acknowledged to make some of the finest pizza in London. I've eaten at both of the other branches, in Brixton and Chiswick, and agree that they're excellent, although I didn't think Chiswick was quite up to the standard of the original in Brixton market.

When I spotted them in Westfield I was worried that they might have sold out, expanding the empire at the expense of the quality. I needn't have worried, the wood burning ovens were present and correct and the prices no higher than in Brixton.

Just tomato, mozzarella and basil, simple but absolutely delicious. They use a sourdough for the base which is then blasted in those fiercely hot ovens producing a crust that's beautifully bubbled and charred on the outside but remains soft, light and slightly chewy within. Good quality cheese and tomato in just the right proportions offset the dough nicely.

The ease with which a whole one of these can be gobbled up is amazing. Just compare and contrast with the heavy going stodgefests that so many pizzas become. An absolute bargain at £5.90, especially when you consider that the vastly inferior equivalent at Pizza Express costs £7.50.


Unit 2003
The Balcony
Westfield Stratford City
E20 1ES


Franco Manca on Urbanspoon

Buen Provecho, eat.st at King's Cross, London

I'm all for the street food revolution. Mobile catering has been improving at festivals and the like for a good few years now, and it finally seems that bringing the same idea (that you can serve good food from a van) to the city streets has caught on in a big way. London's new eat.st is at the forefront, with a rotating list of traders pitched up along a new pedestrian precinct round the back of King's Cross station.

Mexican stall Buen Provecho tickled my fancy last Friday, mainly because I'd heard great things about their tacos. Which as luck would have it were unavailable because the tortillas were late arriving. No matter as the lunch box meal is any two of the same taco fillings served on rice, with salsa, guacamole and tortilla chips.

A point of note to virtually every one of those burrito places that have popped up in recent years. It wouldn't kill you to include guacamole in the price. 50p extra or more for a smear of mashed avocado is a rip-off. Buen Provecho showed how it should be done by making good guacamole and including it in the price. Self service salsas and tortilla chips, and the fact the guy serving was friendly and looked like a pirate also made me smile.

Star of the show was Cochinita pibil, slow roasted pork marinated in orange juice and spices (I'm not quite sure what). The meat was reduced to lovely moist shreds that oozed juices with an intense tangy flavour. If I ever get round to going here again I'll just have this stuff. The salsas were also pretty good, one of raw finely diced veg and coriander, the other a hotter, smokier affair probably involving some sort of roasted chillies. A dollop of refried beans were also successful, lending creaminess to the rice.

The only duff note was the other meat dish, chicken and chorizo in a sauce that was a bit nondescript. It tasted ok but was dull in comparison with the outstanding pork.

A substantial meal box costs £6, service is friendly, you can help yourself to salsa and there's plenty of kerb to sit on.


King's Boulevard


Buen Provecho (Food Cart) on Urbanspoon

Banh Mi Bay, Holborn, London

Imagine a sandwich that's rich and meaty but fresh and tangy. A sandwich that marries three types of pork with mayo and pickles. A sandwich that's spicy and fragrant. A sandwich that's crusty and crunchy but smooth and moist. This is the Banh Mi, Vietnam's notable contribution to the pantheon of great sandwiches.

I fell in love with the Banh Mi when I lived in Woolwich. Someone opened up a Vietnamese coffee shop just off the high street, so they were pretty much the only exciting foodstuff I could eat without hopping on a train (Woolwich is not London's finest foodie suburb, there are some potentially good Ghanaian places, but they always had strange blacked out windows and I never plucked up the courage to venture inside). I would muck around in the gym for half an hour or so, then reward myself with bread, and chilli, and three types of pork.

I digress, the special Banh Mi at Banh Mi Bay was pretty damn good. All the key elements were there: a light rice flour baguette, roast pork, pork roll, pork liver paté, slightly pickled carrot and mooli, mayo, cucumber, coriander, chilli. I'd have liked the paté to have been more liver-y, there are plenty of other strong flavours present to stand up to it, but apart from that I couldn't fault it.

£3.85 for the special Banh Mi, perfectly reasonable as it's an impressively proportioned sandwich. It contains three varieties of pork too, did I mention that already?


4-6 Theobalds Road


Banh Mi Bay on Urbanspoon

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