Monthly Archives: November 2013

Illy University

“I don’t drink coffee, I take tea my dear”

Like Sting’s Englishman in New York, I see away 4 or 5 cups of tea every day (earl grey, splash of milk, no sugar – thanks). While I love coffee, I don’t drink it regularly and usually only indulge in this most seductive of caffeine hits when it’s made for me by a proper barista with a good machine.

Recently I discovered that there is a middle ground between the dirty dishwater style coffee that dribbles out of the worst vending machines and the multi-thousand pound professional kit. The lovely people at the Illy University (yes, there is such a thing – this is where budding baristas come for training) invited me over for a demonstration of their at-home machines, which they promised would give me the high-quality java I craved in my own flat.

First, the drawbacks of the bulky, heavy professional machines were explained. Marco Arrigo, Head of Quality for Illy Coffee in the UK, is deeply fond of his Faema coffee machine from the 1960s, but it needs constant maintenance to be kept running smoothly.

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Marco and his team have to pull hundreds of espressos every day to ensure it stays in good nick: obviously hugely impractical for a household that requires just a handful of cups per day.

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Marco said he “fights against” the vintage, clanking machinery every day and let me have a go at grappling myself.

One of my first ever teenage jobs was at a well-known high street coffee chain, which I won’t name, but they’re known for their green aprons… There, you were taught to use spoons to control your steamed and foamed milk but Marco is a purist: it’s all in the wrist, no spoons allowed. With Marco’s help I completed a couple of shaky hearts and leaves.

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While the “third wave” coffee movement comprising independent roasteries believe freshly roasted green beans are the best, Illy prefers to let the roasted coffee beans mellow over 21 days in pressurised cans. Illy sources beans from nine different countries and has to produce a consistent, familiar Illy taste each time, so the blend has to be just right.

The capsules used in Illy’s at-home machines are similarly pressurised.

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Comparing coffees from the professional and at-home machines was a revelation: both had a lingering viscosity, a sign of high quality. Thin, watery mouthfeel is often a bad or poorly made coffee. The proper, thick stuff should be powerful enough so the flavour coats the tongue long after you sip. Sure enough, it was impossible to detect the difference between the coffee from the professional machine and the coffee from the at-home machine.

After a few more lessons (such as how to store coffee beans or grounds – NEVER in the fridge or freezer), class was dismissed at Illy University.

Which meant it was booze o’clock! We were treated to espresso martinis made by Bea Bradsell, whose father Dick invented the espresso martini in the 1980s at the Soho Brasserie, after a supermodel demanded “a drink that will wake me up and then fuck me up”.

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Bea Bradsell’s perfect espresso martini recipe:

50ml vodka
25ml good espresso, chilled (never use freshly pulled espresso because it will melt the ice and give you a watery drink)
10ml Tia Maria
15ml Kahlua
Dash simple syrup

Shake vigorously with ice and strain into chilled glass. Decorate with three coffee beans for luck. Bottoms up!

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The fun didn’t stop there: Illy let me take my very own machine home to practice my new-found latte art skills.

Say hello to the Illy Francis Francis X7.1!

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This baby is a cinch to use, looks great in my kitchen and produces excellent espresso at the touch of a button. It would be good to see Illy use more recyclable materials in the future.

As an early Christmas present I have a nifty promo code to share, which gives you 20% off new machines and coffee until 10th January 2014 (maximum of 3 items per order):

http://www.espressocrazy.com/promo/ILLYSCHOOL

What’s your perfect brew?

Sticks ‘n’ Sushi Covent Garden launch

The website for Sticks ‘n’ Sushi carries the tag line “voted best sushi in Copenhagen, trying hard in London”.

The Danish brand’s efforts here have so far focused on the Wimbledon restaurant which opened last year. Wimbledon is an unexpected location to open a new restaurant, particularly one keen to expand (there are eleven locations in Copenhagen) but the brand’s UK flagship became popular with well-heeled locals and a favourite lunch spot for “yummy mummies”.

They also ran some clever marketing during the tennis to take advantage of the borough’s annual fortnight of inflated popularity, but for the rest of the time the brand’s Twitter feed worked hard to persuade non-locals that Wimbledon was really not that far from central London.

Now the first Sticks ‘n’ Sushi  venue in zone 1 has opened its doors and I was happy to be invited to one of the preview launch nights. The interior has a minimalist, Scandinavian aesthetic with both table and bar seating. Downstairs is the place to go if you want to glimpse your food being made in the open plan kitchen.

Cheeky “Denmark vs. UK” messaging is visible throughout the venue, even on the staff’s t-shirts which have slogans like “Danish lessons on the house” with snippets of translated vocabulary. Glossy table-talkers show stylish black & white images of landmarks, cultural references and scenery comparing the two countries.

However the fun, cutesy tone is secondary to Sticks ‘n’ Sushi’s main point of difference: the menus declare that this is a sushi restaurant “for people who don’t like sushi”.

The “sticks” part of the name does not refer to chopsticks as many assume, but to the meaty yakitori skewers which make up around half the menu. Sticks ‘n’ Sushi is a decent compromise for couples or groups of friends where one party has a sushi craving while the rest crave steak.

Of course I love both so ordered a few things from the Ikea catalogue style menu. This is not meant as an insult; I usually run a mile from restaurants which display pictures of the food (they’re usually dodgy kebab shops or awful tourist traps) but Sticks ‘n’ Sushi’s menu is a great example of how to do something differently, with glossy pages, clear images, attractive styling and carefully considered layout.

Chargrilled edamame, with patches of scorched, smokey skin, were perfect to pick at with cocktails while we decided what to order.

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Tuna tartare with tobiko and quail’s egg yolk had beautifully clean, subtle flavours.

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This sushi platter would probably make purist Japanese sushi chefs furious but I couldn’t resist ordering something called “Hell’s Kitchen rolls” – tempura shrimp, spicy sauce, avocado and tuna.

Our waitress also recommended the Salmon New York Nigiri which includes garlic – one of the most popular dishes apparently (seen in foreground).

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Yakitori skewers with a decadent foie gras and truffle glaze.

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The spare ribs were the dud of the dishes we tried, with a somewhat dry, tough texture and way too much coriander.

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Yakiniku steak served with kimchee was a fusion dish done well, although the kimchee did not have the punch of the New Malden version.

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We finished our meal with a foursome of miniature desserts which caused serious spoon-clashing as we fought over the last morsels. It would have been no problem to polish off full sizes of all of them, particularly the chocolate fondant with hazelnut and caramel brittle.

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The restaurant may be “trying hard in London” but as long as it continues to ensure that both sides of their offering are equally high quality, they can relax a little. I dare say we will be seeing more Sticks ‘n’ Sushi restaurants opening up around London before long.

Sticks N Sushi on Urbanspoon

Bocca di Lupo: a gem among the tourist traps

It’s good to have a few places like Bocca di Lupo up your sleeve, where you can escape to in an overcrowded neighborhood filled with tourists and tourist traps.

Although the restaurant has received various high-profile awards since it opened in 2008, Bocca di Lupo still feels like a hidden gem. Perhaps it’s more of a forgotten gem; five years is a long time in the restaurant industry and this buzzy spot is talked about less as dozens of new restaurants open every month in London. But novelty is overrated next to places which have continued to thrive over time, through many fickle trends.

Bocca di Lupo is a mere three minute walk from the madness of Piccadilly Circus, but tucked away on the unassuming Archer St, you really have to know where you’re going to find it.

However this is the kind of place that doesn’t need to worry about attracting passing traffic; it has a loyal fanbase of regulars who adore the restaurant’s stripped-down food “from all across Italy’s twenty regions” as the restaurant’s website says.

Chef Jacob Kennedy is an Italianophile Londoner who trained at another London dining favourite, Moro.

The restaurant is small with just a few tables, but I prefer popping in for a glass of wine and a few bites at the bar. Wherever you sit, you will want to clap your hands with joy as each plate is served.

Is this or is this not the best way to serve artichoke?! Stuffed with crab:

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The dish looks beautifully simple but imagine the amount of work that goes into it. Artichoke and crab are two fine ingredients but also two of the most fiddly to prep; I’m more than happy to pay someone else to do the hard graft.

Every last thistly bit of the artichoke was painstakingly removed and the crab was picked carefully from its shell. A little bowl of top quality olive oil scented with lemon zest was served alongside for dipping the leaves.

Our lovely waitress almost cheered when she cleared the plate, saying that many people are too shy to scrape all of the artichoke flesh from the leaves with their teeth in public, even though the restaurant positively encourages this – such a waste!

These darling dumplings were so plump and fluffy, you could lay your head against them for a quick snooze. They’re called gnudi and were served with a lamb ragu.

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Caponata is one of those magical dishes where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts; a mix of slow-cooked, sweet vegetables is cut through with a sharp dressing of anchovy, vinegar and capers. I haven’t tasted a better one in London than Bocca’s.

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A scoop or two from Gelupo, the restaurant’s gelato shop across the road is the perfect way to end a delightful Sunday supper.

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It’s also the perfect accessory to pretend you’re a glamorous Italian languidly promenading past Piazza Navona, instead of a harried Londoner elbowing your way through the Piccadilly Circus throng back to the tube.

Bocca Di Lupo on Urbanspoon