August 31, 2011

Checking in at Hotel Chocolate

I'm a little late with my weekly post after going away to Granada, Spain for the long weekend (more on that in a future post hopefully....) so I thought I'd write a short post on what is probably my favourite British chocolate store, Hotel Chocolate.  The first time I learnt of Hotel Chocolate was when a store opened in West Quay shopping Centre in Southampton where Dave and I used to live.  The name of the store intrigued me and I had to check it out....

It was such a cool looking chocolate shop where you could always find a nice gift for someone or a treat for yourself.  One such gift idea is the Sleekster Everything Selection, a box of 30 lovely looking chocolates which all taste great (unlike some boxes where you always end up with some flavour that no one wants!).  My mum bought a box for Dave for his birthday and he wasn't disappointed, taking only a short time to finish the box pretty much on his own!

So many choices....
When Jack was in the UK on her previous visit, she also managed to find a few goodies to take back to Oz and our friends are never disappointed when we front up with Hotel Chocolate gifts - we know as they tend to be opened and finished within the same hour.  Whilst the chocolates are not as cheap as some mainstream or supermarket brands, they are definitely not as expensive as some of the posh European brands.  Highly recommended for a gift or just a nice treat for yourself - almost like a stay in a fancy hotel!

What:  Hotel Chocolate 
Where:  various UK stores and in some John Lewis stores, plus a handful of International locations
How much:  various from £2 a small bar to £85 gift boxes (you can go wild!)

August 29, 2011

Wrap & Roll

"It's only WRAP & ROLL but I like it!" is the tag line for the Vietnamese offering called Wrap & Roll at Westfield Sydney.

I was definitely keen to check out this place as there were many interesting dishes that you don't normally see at Vietnamese restaurants in Sydney, let alone in the cbd. As it's tag line suggests, it's largely wraps and rolls - you won't find beef noodle soup or pork chop rice. I was immediately drawn to the Bánh cuốn which is on the starters section of the menu. It's described as "Mushrooms and minced pork rolled with transparent freshly steamed rice paper, topped with fried shallots. Served with bean sprouts and fresh herbs and a Northern style sauce. A signature dish and a classic from the north."

Check out the steamy action!
It's worth checking out how they make the freshly steamed rice paper as the roll making counter is visible through glass. They pour the milky looking batter onto the steamer, cover it with a lid and in no time at all you have a delicate sheet of rice paper. It's a light dish, the pork mince and mushrooms make for a simple and homely taste, made complete by the fried shallots which adds a crunchy contrast to the rolls as well as giving the taste a stronger accent. The sauce is also light and fresh so that it doesn't overpower the dish. It's a light and fresh dish and I really enjoyed it. So much so, I've had it 3 times already and still can't bring myself to try the other dishes on the menu - that will have to wait til next time, assuming I can stop myself ordering the Bánh cuốn again!

Bánh cuốn

What: Wrap & Roll
Where: Shop 5004, Retail Level 5, Westfield Sydney (188 Pitt St Sydney) 0280727050
How much: Bánh cuốn will cost you $8.90 - dishes range from $8.90 to $15.00

August 22, 2011

four o nine - for Matt and Tom

This weekend was a big celebration for Matt and Tom so I thought it would be fitting to dedicate a blog post to them.  Situated above The Clapham North hotel, four o nine is Matt and Tom's local version of my Entree:  both are local restaurants serving fantastic food at great prices in very nice surrounds.  We went to four o nine with the guys recently for a pre-movie meal on a Sunday evening.  The place was really nicely decked out in a stylish but chilled way which was matched by the professional but chilled service.

We didn't have much time for dinner as we were in a bit of a rush but we still managed to squeeze in two or three courses each plus a couple of bottles of wine!  The boys all had a starter which were a bit different but tasty and well presented.  Dave had the Cornish white crab and brown shrimp tian with capers, cornichons, egg and crostini. This was probably the best starter although Matt's smoked aubergine soup served chilled was also interesting; as was Tom's salad with beetroot chips.

Mains were all very good also.  I especially liked my sea bass which was cooked perfectly with crispy skin and served with a lovely blend of mushrooms, beans, peas and kale.  Tom's beef was delicious and slightly better than Dave's veal.  Matt's mushroom, asparagus and ricotta stuffed round courgette with beetroot and marjoram looked interesting although a bit too much veg for my liking.  I'd say the mains would give Entree a good run for it's money, especially with the triple cooked chips (served with aioli). 

Desserts were somewhat rushed but three of us still managed to squeeze in a lovely chocolate brownie with ice-cream, some sorbet and a raspberry panacotta which was a bit too solid for my liking (when it comes to pannacotta it should be wobbly liked Jonah's famous boob-like vanilla panacotta).  Is it appropriate to write boob in a blog???  I digress.

four o nine was a hit and a great find for Matt and Tom as it is just a stone's throw away from their place.  The food is a little different but not overdone and very good value.  I have to say that although four o nine is a little bit cheaper, the quality is slightly higher at Entree with more consistency across the dishes/courses.  Having said that, I know we will definitely be heading back to four o nine as it is great for a casual meal or something more special.  There is even a private room for functions which leads to a small terrace for drinks/smokes.  I'm already looking forward to the next meal there with Matt and Tom.  

What:  four o nine
Where:  409 Clapham Road, London SW9 9BT
How much:  Entrees ave. £7.50, Mains ave. £17, Desserts £6

August 19, 2011

Jack Snacks!... Pataks ready to eat Mini Pappadums

It's been one of those weeks - the bad kind! But it's the little things that can make it all better. In this case, it's the joy of stumbling across something that you've eaten overseas that cannot be found back at home (Sydney in my case). Oh the excitement!

Jess introduced me to pre-cooked mini pappadums the first time I visited her in the UK. They sold them in the "crisps" section of Waitrose and she was quite excited when she gave me some to try as she knew I'd like them just as much as she does. I mean, who doesn't like pappadums? And who wouldn't mind having a bag in the cupboard, ready whenever you've got a pappadum craving? Yum, I'm going to be eating lots more!

So I was checking out the 7-Eleven near my office and saw the "Pataks ready to eat mini pappadums" and my eyes nearly popped out of my head. So I rushed straight to Coles (hehe yes, for the cost saving) to buy a packet. There's plain and there's also an assorted flavours option which has a mix of plain, black peper and mildly spiced. The 2 flavours are distinct and really good matches for the pappadums.

Thanks Jess for introducing me to these in the UK. And thanks Pataks for making my mini pappadum dreams come true here in Sydney!

What: Pataks ready to eat mini pappadums. Comes in plain or assorted (plain, black pepper, mildly spiced)
Where: Get it in the curry section of the supermarket, along with all the other Pataks products
How much: I paid $3.99 for a pack at Coles Express (75gm)

August 16, 2011

Jack Snacks!... Shiroi Fuusen

I don't often buy rice crackers but when I saw these I was intrigued! White as snow, they didn't look like the usual kind - and the description on the packet included the words 'chocolate cream' - oooh! A sweet rice cracker? Must try!

That is one white cracker.

The first bite is strange, the rice cracker is super light and there's no real flavour and it's very plain. The small smear of chocolate cream is good as it gives the taste some definition. Once I finished it, I ate another one straight away. Partly cause I wanted to put my finger on the oddity of the plain cracker, but mostly cause it was tasty!

Plain rice cracker is weird but wonderful.

What: Shiroi Fuusen rice crackers (available with milk cream or chocolate cream flavour)
Where: I got mine from Miracle supermarket World Square, but later saw it at Maruyu as well
How much: $5.45 at Miracle, $4.97 at Maruyu (d'oh! I could have saved 48c!)

August 15, 2011

Donna Margherita - dedicated to the businesses of Clapham Junction

Given all the goings on in London, I wasn't really in the mood to blog last weekend but luckily things seemed to have calmed down which is a relief for all the local businesses.  One such local business is Donna Margherita which is on Lavender Hill where some of the rioters were making trouble smashing glass shop fronts and setting the party shop on fire.  Luckily the southern Italian restaurant was further up the road from the troubles of Monday night.  

Donna Margherita was recommended to me by my friend Esteban, a Napoli football fan who frequents the restaurant for good Neapolitan style pizza and televised Napoli matches.  We have been there a few times with him and Maria and also on our own to enjoy good Italian comfort food in a friendly atmosphere.  

The photos featured in this blog are from one such visit where our friend Anna also joined us.  It was a slightly different meal this time as there were a couple of specials on the menu that were well and truly special. The first was the fresh buffalo mozarella which had apparently been flown in on the day from Italy.  Whether or not this was true, the mozarella was delicious - firm and "meaty" for a cheese and definitely fresh.  We all shared this with some salad as a start.

Fresh buffalo mozarella and more of it in the gnocchi!

For mains, I stuck with one of Esteban's favourites, the O’gnocc a`Sorrentina, homemade gnocchi with (more) buffalo mozarella, parmesan, fresh basil and tomatoe sauce.  Simple but hearty and reliable.  Anna and Esteban also had pasta which they enjoyed.  Surprisingly no one had pizza although it is usually on the order.

Fresh lobster pasta - yuummm!
Dave and Maria shared one of the specials for two which was spaghetti with fresh lobster (half each).  It sounded good when it was described but I don't think anyone expected it to be as amazing as it was - the lobster meat was so fresh, sweet and and cooked perfectly.  It was so delicious with the simple tomato sauce and pasta that all of us seafood lovers (i.e. not Esteban) were jealous.  Good pick Dave and Maria!

If you're in the neighbourhood of Battersea/Clapham Junction, be sure to visit one of the many amazing local businesses including Donna Margherita.  Like other such businesses (Jack's cafe, Jamie's Recipease, and even chains like Pizza Express) Donna Margherita has a warm family feel to it, serving good quality food in a relaxed atmosphere.  Be sure to book ahead on a Friday or Saturday or when there is a Napoli game on.  And if you can't get in, check out one of the many other amazing places in the area (Entree, Lola Rojo, Pizza Metro Pizza, Brew).  Enjoy!

What:  Donna Margherita Italian Restaurant
Where:  183 Lavender Hill, Battersea  SW11 5TE
How much:  Entree's £6-8, pizzas average £9, pasta average £10.  Good selection of reasoanble wines. 

August 11, 2011

Four Ate Five Cafe

It's a sunny Sunday morning and a few of our Supper Nights crew have gathered for brunch at the very popular Four Ate Five cafe in Surry Hills. And it sure is popular - we've wisely called 15min ahead to add our names to the waiting list (a handy tip) but even so it's still quite a wait. There's a decent jumble of people waiting for their turn to eat despite other cafes in close proximity looking like less of a wait. I think to myself that this place must be really trendy or have really good food.

There's a few little tables on the pavement enjoying some winter sun, the occassional takeaway coffee being purchased and a display of baked goods at the front window reminding you that you're getting hungry. Finally our names are called and we are seated at a table. The place is small and busy with a bit of a hippie feel but not so crowded that you can't hear your own voice. Our waitress was friendly and efficient - in no time we had perused both the breakfast and lunch menus and placed our orders. 

Hello there mr brownie and miss carrot cake and mr lamington..

Watch out for the stepasaurus!!!!
Drinks are first up. There are a few tempting choices including marsala chai tea brewed with milk and honey but I've decided to go for something light and choose the watermelon, pear & mint juice ($5.50). There's not much pear or mint flavour, I can only taste watermelon - maybe a slight boo boo? Meanwhile the table next to us has fresh mint tea and they look like they're having fun with the 'honey guns' that come as a vessel of sweetening the tea. The others opt for fresh fruit smoothies ($7.50). Strawberry and vanilla has the promised fresh strawberry taste while the banana, cinammon & honey tastes of all those things. In one word - yum! They are both so tasty that I almost regret not ordering a smoothie but I remind myself that I have to save room for the food...

Mmm smoothie tastes good, juice on the other hand - more pear and mint please!

Should have got the fresh mint tea... should have got the fresh mint tea...

Everything on the menu sounds good. After the long wait for the table I expect the food to take a while but it's surprisingly quick. The first meal to arrive is the beef burger w/ pickled beetroot, aioli, cheddar, onion relish, lettuce & tomato chutney, served w/ hand cut chips ($17 from the lunch menu). I like the chips as they've got a squidgy potato-ness to them and the sample I got of the burger is everything a burger should be - fresh and full of taste. Then there's roast beef w/ onion relish, fresh tomato, dijon mustard, aioli, polski ogorki & cos lettuce on grilled sourdough ($13, also from the lunch menu). It's slightly more modest and healthy in comparison to the burger but still full of flavour - another winner.

Roast beef sandwich - now that's a sandwich.

Out come the two breakfasts that us girls have ordered - free range eggs with toast ($9). Steph's chosen the fried eggs and added beef chipolatas ($3.50) and I've opted for scrambled eggs with potato & fennel hash ($3.50). We've both got haloumi too ($4) - briney, squeaky and heavenly. Jess would have definitely gotten the haloumi too because she is a certified haloumi fanatic! (hee!) Everything is cooked nicely although we both find the toast a little tough to bite through but it's more of an observation than a complaint.

Beef burger with hand cut chips? Eggs and toast? It's all good but haloumi is where it's at!

In no time we are full and satisfied and I think everyone's enjoyed the food as much as I have. As to whether Four Ate Five is popular because of trendiness or food? It is indeed a bit trendy but I think the food is definitely the reason why people are willing to line up - it's not overly complicated or fancy, the ingredients are fresh and it's cooked well and that makes for a good brunch.

Last but not least, a message to Jess and Dave - be safe over in London and take care!

What: Four Ate Five Cafe
Where: 485 Crown Street, Surry Hills 02 96986485
How much: check out their website for the menu and prices

August 6, 2011

Jack Snacks!... Bon Bon Fine Chocolate - update!

The chocolate cherries I got from Bon Bon Fine Chocolate are nearly finished. I felt like a(nother) treat so I went back and got the Slow Roasted Almonds in 70% Cocoa ($8.90 for 149gm). Yum - they are soooo good, the dusting of cocoa powder gives that little bit of cocoa-bitterness which I love!

But that's not the main point of this post - when I first went there, the pamphlet had read "Bon Bon Fine Chocolate Cafe" and I thought maybe there was going to be a cafe downstairs. But the stairs were roped off and both visits I had made to the store didn't hint at any such cafe. But! When I went there today, the rope across the stairs had a sign saying that a cafe is opening soon so I can't wait to check it out! Stay tuned...

This box is not going to last very long, just too dang delicious!

What: Slow Roasted Almonds in 70% Cocoa
Where: Bon Bon Fine Chocolate - Shop 33, Ground Floor, The Strand Arcade, Sydney (02) 9232 2992
How much: $8.90 for 149gm

August 1, 2011

Jack Snacks!... Pacari Dark Chocolate Covered Cacao Nibs

My penchant for little packets of food (cute and fits in your bag for anytime snacking) combined with my love of dark chocolate meant that I was not going to be able to leave the shop without this little package. It's Pacari Dark Chocolate Covered Cacao Nibs. The chocolate covered nibs are tiny but full of chocolate flavour and so, so delicious. The cacao nibs give it an intense cocoa taste. They are totally addictive and I just couldn't stop eating them! I had to put them back in my bag so that I would forget about them but not before scoffing half the box. I ate the other half the next day - oops.

They also have Chocolate Covered Golden Berries which are addictive as well. The berry pieces are small, they're not too much bigger than the cacao nibs, so they don't dominate the chocolate flavour but instead act as a fruity complement. I, err, also scoffed these down and didn't even manage to take a photo of them. I'll have to try dried banana too and check out their bars cause the chocolate is so tasty. It's also organic, single-origin and made in Ecuador according to fair and equitable standards (according to their website). What's not to like? Mmm chocolate...

This could easily become my pack-a-day habit.

What: Pacari Dark Chocolate Covered Cacao Nibs - check out all their products here
Where: I got mine at Norton St Grocer, Bondi Junction Westfield
How much: $5.99 for an itty bitty box of deliciousness

Best Pizza in London?

Da Portare Via was my favourite Pizza place in Amsterdam when I lived there and I was not the only fan.  My Italian friend Maria, who is now living in London as well, was also a fan of the very thin and light pizzas which are probably the healthiest but also tastiest pizzas outside of Italy.  

So when we both moved to London it was important for us to seek out the new best pizza place which has kept us very busy (and full).  There have been a few good Neopolitan pizza places including the following places that Maria and I have tried together:
Rossopomodoro - there are 3 restaurants in the chain and their pizzas are simple but a bit heavier than others
Donna Margherita - a nice local Italian restaurant in Battersea whose pizzas are a bit lighter but simple
Pizzeria Pappagone - near Finsbury Park, another nice local restaurant whose pizzas are also very good.  Out of the places I've tried, this is probably rated as second best for me (and may even warrant it's own post later).

However my favourite is Pizza Metro Pizza, recommended to me by Anna, an Italian colleague who raved on about the place and for good reason.  Pizza Metro Pizza serves meter long pizzas which are really good to share - everyone orders  their own pizza but it comes in meter long lengths that you can cut up yourself.  The pizza base is thin but doughy enough and the toppings are really good.  I have been a couple of times and enjoyed all the pizzas I have tried such as Bufalina which has big balls of buffalo mozarella with basil and tomato.  Portobello topped which mushrooms, rocket and truffle oil and cheese is tasty and not too heavy.  And PizzaMetroPizza is also a winner with meatballs and aubergine.  Also worth mentioning are the Mozzarelline Fritte which are fried balls of mozarella served as a starter - how could you go wrong with fried, chewy cheese?

Bufalina - one meter of mozarella heaven

Pizza Metro Pizza is recommended if you're after a good pizza in a nice relaxed environment.  Service is friendly and welcoming (like most Italian places) and if you really want to splash out and make a night of it, the restaurant and I recommend a bottle of the Taurasi Radici red wine; at £40 a bottle, it may feel a little pricey for a pizza night but it sure goes well.

Portobello - the original Battersea Rise restaurant - Pizza Metro Pizza
If you have any suggestions for pizza places, drop a comment on this blog.  My friend Maria has suggested that Piccolino in Heddon St could have a shot at the top spot but for now, Pizza Metro Pizza is number one for me.

What:  Meter long pizzas at Pizza Metro Pizza
Where:  64 Battersea Rise, Battersea SW11 1EQ, or Notting Hill also.
How much:  Pizzas from £8.50 - £12.50
Special thanks to Dave and Jack for encouraging me to improve my posts (and for their actual help) - hope you like this one!