Sunday, December 30, 2012

La Choza Review - Mexican Street Food, Brighton

Rating: 6/10

Cost: Burrito and beer for £9.50

Go there if: You're young, trendy, hungry and want some tasty, filling, inexpensive nosh.

Conclusion: Not bad but disappointing; restaurant reliant on image and decor more than food.


La Choza is proving to be an extremely popular new restaurant in Brighton. It's unlikely you'll get a table as this small venue is permanently packed. Instead they have a system of taking your mobile number and calling you when a table becomes available, and they're keen to stress that they won't be offended if you find somewhere else to eat in the meantime.

I missed out the first time I tried to try La Choza as my friend and I were too hungry to wait and we went to The Chili Pickle for lunch instead (for the £13 thali) followed by 2 for 1 caipirinhas at chain restaurant Las Iguanas (it was Christmas Eve). On my second visit to La Choza for lunch a few days later there still wasn't room for me and I still couldn't wait to eat, but this time I got take-away. I was dying to try the food and wouldn't be back in Brighton for a while.

The menu is quite limited - no bad thing - and all the main courses are based on the simple system of selecting a base (burrito, burrito bowl, quesadillas, tostadas), a filling (slow cooked beef, marinated and shredded free range chicken, homemade Mexican chorizo, pit-smoked pulled pork by Bar-B-Q Shack, deep-fried battered fish, roasted spicy squash and sweet potato with feta, prawns fried with garlic, chili and lime) and a salsa (mild pico de gallo, mild green, medium cooked chipotle, hot habanero).

I chose a burrito with the pulled pork and hot salsa (£6). As well as your chosen filling, the burritos come stuffed with green rice, cheese, sour cream and refried beans.

The helpful and cheerful waiter recommended the Modelo Especial Mexican beer (£3.50), which I enjoyed while waiting for my lunch. I had to stand in the cramped space between the door and the little bar, and watch seated diners enjoying their meals while being jostled by constant new arrivals trying to get a table.

The decor is very bright and funky, featuring lots of sugar skulls (Mexican painted skulls) and Mexican-style fabrics. The clientelle seemed to be predominantly young and female. I think everyone there apart from me was under 30.

Image from La Choza's website

My burrito arrived and I took it outside to eat standing up next to a table that I put my beer on. The soft burrito was large and generously filled but mainly with rice. The rice was nice and the burrito was tasty, but it was lacking - lacking in care for the way it was filled (sections of individual ingredients clumped together so it was impossible to get a mouthful of everything, and I had to work my way through grated cold cheese followed by sour cream and just tonnes of rice), lacking in pork, lacking in salsa, lacking in punchy Mexican flavour. Some of the quite hard chunks of 'pulled' pork were too big for one mouthful but were difficult to bite in two.

Much is made of the slow-cooked element of La Choza's fare, but I struggled to taste the sparse pork. I could tell that effort had been made with the rice but the sheer quantity of it took over everything else. The refried beans clearly hadn't been made to an authentic recipe. They seemed to just be a bean purée. Why take such care with the meat and rice but not bother with the beans? Especially as the menu is so limited; every item should be the best it can be. That is what I assumed I would experience after reading about the restaurant's pride in the meats it serves and seeing the small menu. I was disappointed.

I'm sorry to say that I think the popularity of La Choza is down to its trendy image and the aesthetic appeal of its interior and not to its food. Hence the youthful customer base. Yes, I only tried one dish but I think you can judge a Mexican by its burritos. It would still be nice to eat in there with the bright colours and filling, tasty food, but it could be really fantastic and it just isn't. The crampedness would even add positively to the street food feel if the food was as good as it could be. But as it is, I would rather have fajitas in Las Iguanas, with plenty of juicy meat, salsa, guacamole and enough space to dine comfortably.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Little Taste of Ibiza

A quick couple of days in Ibiza made for a seriously therapeutic treat. We did manage one rather short evening of partying but the main focus was food and a bit of sun-cramming before enduring a long British winter - and having endured a long British summer.

The highlight was a spa day at the five star Hotel Hacienda. For €70 we got to experience the incredible view, stunning surroundings and luxury of the venue, along with a full body massage delivered through various kinds of water jets in a series of pools, AND a three course lunch.

The place is normally pretty crowded by its supermodel and DJ clientele, but by the beginning of October there was hardly anyone else there, which made it feel even more exclusive.

We felt very pleased with ourselves, admiring the view in the hot sun (imagining the cold in England) and sipping cava while we waited for our spa slot.

Next, we were admiring the view again, but this time from bubbling pools of salt water, teetering on the edge of the cliff.

After that we enjoyed the view from our restaurant table, right at the highest point of the hotel and indeed the mountain. The starter was a tapas plate of broad bean and mint salad, tempura prawns and sweet chili sauce (yawn), ricotta toasts, rabbit samosas and chilled asparagus cream. All very nicely done.

The main course was grilled salmon steak, octopus stew, steak and a lamb chop, all served on solid slabs of salt – ideal for a sodium chloride addict such as myself. The meat was seared to crispiness on the outside, pink within. They were accompanied by a buckwheat tabouleh.

Steak and lamb chop was served on a block of salt

I thought I didn’t have room for dessert or care much about it, but the beautifully presented platter of mini-puds was particularly good, and rather less of them than promised were donated to a friend. I forgot to photograph them in my haste to taste. They included a little ice-cream cone filled with chocolate, a rich vanilla ice-cream and a lemon tartlet.

We didn’t want our special day to end just yet, so after lunch we slurped on the best mojitos ever in the world ever while watching the sunset. The designated driver had the best ever virgin mojitos in the world ever, which were literally – and I mean literally – as good as the boozy ones.

We went home for a nap followed by cava and a giant paella at the unassuming Villa Manchega. Such a waste – it was a really good one but the three-person pan-full was enough to feed 12. We didn’t have a fridge at the hotel so we had to leave the copious leftovers at the restaurant.

Other memorable meals included our first meal of the holiday when we had seafood and the saltiest, most garlicky garlic purée/mayo imaginable (that is a good thing, by the way) at the Restaurante El Carmen; a seafood selection with chips and rosé from the Cala Gracio beach café (owned and run for 40 years by a charming native Ibizan guy who’s married to a lady from Burnley and called us 'lasses'); and posh nosh at Villa Mercedes.

Squid and grilled red mullet at Resaurante El Carmen (above); 
Last meal of grilled sardines (below).

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Croatian Food Odyssey

I used to want to marry Giles Coren, but a few incidents recently (nothing to do with editorial hissy fits – I liked them) are making me wonder if he’s not just a bit of a knob. Don’t worry; I would never normally be as unprofessional as to slag people off, but he’s much ruder about most people all the time and his mushrooming ego wouldn’t allow him to take offence anyway.

The main thing that stopped me wanting to marry Giles quite so much was his disdain for Croatian food. IT IS WONDERFUL. He must not have eaten in the right places. That said, I didn’t eat in a single place that wasn’t incredibly good and I wasn’t even trying very hard so I don’t know how he would have managed that.

It’s a fusion of Mediterranean and Eastern European cuisine that revolves around a bountiful and diverse array of fantastic local ingredients – abundant seafood, salt marsh lamb from Pag Island, suckling pig, wild boar, truffles, hot peppers, tomatoes, mushrooms, garlic, potatoes, olive oil, wine and so on. Influences from the west are pizza, risotto and seriously dreamy ice-creams, and from the east comes peka; super-slow-cooked potatoes in olive oil, garlic and herbs, with octopus or meat. And shredded cabbage.

Seriously, Giles, I want to go back just to explore more of the food (although the scenery is dramatically beautiful and varied too).  Try spit-roast suckling pig at a casual roadside eatery! Or barbecued wild sea bass with homemade chips and luscious salad by the sea. Spit-roast lamb at Tamaris in Zadar (on an industrial estate/retail park by a main road, but don’t be put off) is outstanding and comes with THE most delicious peka potatoes. I am not even a potato person but I can’t imagine eating anything more enjoyable than these soft, salty, oily, addictively ambrosial spuds.

Spit-roast lamb and peka potatoes at Tamaris

Spit-roasting suckling pig, by the roasdside

Delicious plate of suckling pig, tasty potatoes and warm pickled cabbage, 
after a starter of exceptionally good octopus salad.

The people were delightful too! Impeccable English everywhere, an eagerness to help Croatian exploration, and not a tiny whisp of the old tourist-foreigner resentment you sometimes sense when abroad was detected from anyone during the 10-day break.

We were given homemade cherry jam by our hosts; offered homemade grappa by other hosts. And the cherry jam hosts came to find us late at night when our sat nav failed to nav, drove us to their favourite restaurant the next night (at 11pm) and carried on being just as kind and friendly when they discovered we were renting their apartment in order to attend a big rave in their neighbourhood (Dimensions Festival).

A recent Croatian National Tourist Board's press release claimed that Croatia is ‘The ultimate foodie destination’. Interesting angle, because even apart from Coren’s erroneous views their cuisine has barely been covered by any foreign press and often – utterly inexplicably – it is criticised. But unlike lots of tourist board manifestos, the Croatians are making an entirely accurate claim (well, maybe ‘an’ ultimate foodie destination, anyway) and I bet pretty soon it will be ‘discovered’ as the biggest new thing in foodie travel.

Driving back to Trieste Airport through Croatia and Slovenia - 
breathtaking scenery (and wild wolves).

We stayed in one of lovely Marina and Ivan's apartments near Pula and the great top floor apartment with large sea view balcony belonging to Anita and Neven in Zadar.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Gnocci in Gorgonzola Sauce

I tasted these at a press event in March. We were at Food4Media's MediaPlace: All About Italy and Olive Magazine's 100th issue party, at Assaggetti in London. Lots of standard nibbles had gone around already but towards the end of the event all sorts of freshly cooked hot nibbles started coming thick and fast out of the kitchen. They were all delicious, but these little beauties blew me away. The gnocci were quite big and square but were not stodgy or heavy. These soft, neutral pillows of comfort were coated in a tasty blue cheese sauce. They were just stunning. 

Assaggetti's PR people kindly got hold of the recipe for me. I made the gnocci in the traditional shape in these photos, just because I like making them, but the recipe's easier cube option actually worked better.

It was only when making this dish that I realised quite how calorific and fat-filled the sauce is. Red wine (I had a nice chianti) is definitely required to dissolve some of the cholesterol. I am no calorie counter or one to choose 'healthy' options, but this is hardcore!

Ingredients to serve four


1kg of Potatoes
1 egg
300g plain flour
A pinch of salt to taste


300g Gorgonzola cheese
50g butter
100cl of whipping cream

What to do

  • Wash potatoes and boil whole for 50 minutes, then peel and mash. Allow to cool. 
  • Add the flour, egg and a pinch of salt to the mash working the mixture with your hands until it is a firm dough. 
  • Cut the dough into long 2-3cm strips, then roll and cut into cubes 
  • Cook the gnocchi in boiling salted water for two minutes; They will rise to the surface when cooked. 
  • Scoop out and then place in the pan with the cheese sauce and cook for a minute longer.

Put the butter, gorgonzola and cream into a pan and melt over a low heat for two to three minutes.

Saturday, July 07, 2012

Pure Strawberry Juice - A Taste Sensation

This is strawberry juice. Not liquidised strawberries, but the pure juice of strawberries and it is a quite awesome elixir.

I had some strawbs in the fridge and kept forgetting to take them out to get to room temperature for eating so they risked going off. My housemate recently invested in a top-of-the-range juicer, and we’ve had lots of fun concocting potions with fruit, vegetables, herbs and spices. Pineapple, cucumber, pear, ginger, mint and beetroot have become favourite ingredients, but the fun thing about this adventure has been that the flavours of pure juices are often quite different from the un-juiced item. It seems that secret magical flavours are locked away in the structure of all fruit and vegetables, and releasing them adds a whole new dimension to food preparation and cooking.

Strawberry juice, still a little frothy on top

So, I juiced my chilled strawberries. I didn’t add anything else, because I wanted to experience the flavour on its own first. Unlike liquidised whole strawberries, it didn’t need lemon juice or sugar to enhance the flavour. It was pretty special; smelt mainly just like strawberry but was intensely clean-tasting. Essence of strawberry but also somehow the taste of fresh verdant countryside air, slightly floral, and if the juice hadn’t been dark red I would have immediately thought it tasted ‘green’ – I realised that later. As I carried on sipping and savouring I could also taste cucumber, and every mouthful brought new flavours and scents. 

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Jubilee Set Menu, By Real Royal Chef

Try this excellent value celebratory meal at The Montagu (Hyatt Regency Hotel, London), until 6th June. For £20, you can indulge in a two-course lunch and £25 will get you three courses, including half a bottle of wine. Evening prices for the same menu are £22 and £27.

The enchanting choices - complete with info about when they were originally served, in Buckingham Palace, Sandringham House and The Royal Yacht Britannia - are all French classics and relatively simple dishes. I had heard the queen does not like garlic, and her taste for delicate flavours seem to be reflected here.

We chose Crêpe au crabe and Oeufs Pochés à l’Ecossaise to start. The crêpe was sweet and light, the ‘eggs’ were actually one poached quail’s egg perched on a really tasty spherical salmon cake and covered in a seriously good frappé of hollandaise, dotted with pink peppercorns – it was thoroughly delicious.

Next, we went for Côteletts d'Agneau à la Menthe avec Les Legumes and Chicken poached in Champagne – both were cooked to absolute perfection, with the lamb chops browned and crispy on the outside and pink within, and the chicken wonderfully moist and only just white with its gentle, creamy wine sauce and crispy skin.

For dessert, we had a fantastic and generously portioned tarte tatin and an unusually good selection of cheeses. I wished we’d also had room to try the Soufflé Glacé aux Framboises (served at the State Banquet in honour of King Khaled of Saudi Arabia on 9 June 1981, no less). I wished it even more when I saw the pretty dessert being served to someone else, but we were replete with royal dishes by that time.

The regal surroundings of The Monatgu add to the sense of occasion for enjoying The Jubilee Set Menu, with the great space of the restaurant itself, dramatic pieces of art (including from the Saatchi Gallery) and the green of Portland Place outside.

Chef Mervyn Wycherley created The Jubilee Set Menu. He worked for the Royal Household between 1972 and 1995 and travelled all over the world with the Royal Family.

Remember, the Jubilee Menu only runs until 6th June…

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Pancakes with Blueberry Sauce & Cream

I was seduced by an offer of a huge box of blueberries for £2. There was no way I could enjoy them all fresh before they went mushy. Blueberries always make me think of pancakes, so after eating about 6 fresh berries, I bunged the rest in a pan with some sugar and lime juice and cooked them down to a jammy sauce.

Pancakes are so easy and delicious - why don't I make them more often? Like more often than about three times in my entire adult life?

Anyway, after the pancake mix had rested, I made pancakes stuffed with an outrageous quantity of blueberry sauce and crème fraîche. Very nice - it felt quite indulgent. I will now consciously look out for those supermarket berry bargains for the purpose of sauces.

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Tapas & Rioja at Chef's Table, The Montagu, London

Had a wonderful meal at The Montagu (in Hyatt hotel London). We were on the Chef’s Table, right in front of the impressive open kitchen.

First, we had champagne and iberico cured ham (two of my favourite things in the world). Then, superb tapas was followed by half a lobster on saffron rice. After that, we had some outstanding roast iberico pork – vaguely pink, fragrant and extremely juicy – and a platter of five mini desserts.

The photos below don't do the tapas justice. They look very pretty but this is misleading, because they maintained real gritty authenticity, and were full of punchy Spanish flavours.

Between courses we had wine tasting with the lovely Trindad Villegas, Export Manager of Bodegas LAN wines . She talked us through the wines that we had with each course, including a fascinating white rioja - Santiago Ruiz - that smelled exactly like a rich, honeyed dessert wine, but tasted fresh, crisp and clean.

And apart from the food and wine tasting, we also of course had the pleasure of the Head Chef's surprisingly relaxed company - which he managed to fit in, between bouts of catering for us and the rest of the restaurant. Carlos Machado might make thoroughly authentic tapas, but he is actually Portuguese, and chats passionately about the cuisine of his own country. Carlos is the ideal asset for a chef’s table, as he’s completely down-to-earth and personable - despite his obvious talent and rapid professional progress.

Spanish black pudding with poached quails' eggs

Chef's Table



Rioja with Trinidad in the background

Spicy Octopus - another of my favourites. It was served in the most fantastic olive oil

Cured Sardines

Carlos Machado, Head Chef

Themes for the Chef's Table at The Montagu vary, so check you're getting a cuisine you love before you book.

Thursday, March 01, 2012

Market Café, Hackney – Top New Eaterie

I was lucky to enjoy a ‘hard-hat’ preview of this brilliant new place before it opened. There was still bare plaster everywhere and it was far from finished, but the almost-done back dining room demonstrated the theme of the décor; 50’s mismatched furniture, slick and cool, friendly and familiar, thoroughly enjoyable.

The food and drink follows a similar model, with “rustic London-Italian food and drink with a modern take on the ‘breakfast and bolognaise’ menu…no airs or graces here. Steak and kidney pudding for two, hand cut tagliatelles with meat sauces, truffled rarebit, jam doughnuts…and homemade Hackney Downs ice-cream”. I had the delicious tagliatelle with meat sauce that tasted so familiar but reminded me of a distant memory I couldn't quite place. It was flavour combination that definitely reminded me of something I’d eaten as a child. Braised beef shin in chianti with polenta was clearly cooked in home-style quantities of wine for e very long time. No corners had been cut and it was wonderful, like the absolute best home cooking. The rice pudding with jam was ambrosial… the creamiest and vanilleriest ever.

For drinks, we had lovely East London Cups, that were cocktails reminiscent of pimms and Market Café’s take on classic London cups (I hadn’t heard of them either). They also do wines, other cocktails and cups, fizz, and craft beers.

East London Cup

Husband and wife team Hugo and Fran Warner, who own the Market Café have taken on some fantastic staff. This really stood out. Their team is made up of genuine individuals who clearly really care, including the ultra-knowledgeable and enthusiastic long-haired and bearded bar manager/deputy manager (Rob? Sorry, I did ask but promptly forgot). The staff fit perfectly with the whole feel of the place; eclectic, down-to-earth, and welcoming. The chef, James Adams has worked at Canteen, Fifteen, St John and River Café and believes there is “no substitute for flavour”.

Hugo sat with us for a bit and his obvious passion for historical reference and good food bubbled over, “…working class cafés once lubricated and nourished a whole post war generation of artists, writers and crimes lords, and galvanised East End and British cultural life. These places were where ordinary people could afford to eat out and also to experience what was in its day exotic food.” He hopes that the “whole local community” will want to eat and drink with them.

Market Café is open all day and evening every day, for breakfast, elevenses, lunch, high tea and supper, as well as freshly ground coffee and evening drinks.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Quick Week in Goa

A week is barely long enough to realise that you need at least a week just to work out what’s going on… It takes at least a week on the beach to acquire the knowledge about those famous beach raves (There aren’t any; go to a silent disco in Palolem – I didn’t have time, but they’re really good, apparently), where you can get good thali and ‘fish curry rice’ (A challenge, since beach shacks that used to serve them now concentrate on ‘international’ menus), and the best beaches (Colva, Palolem).

I now need to go back to Goa quite soon, so I can use the basic knowledge that I picked up on the last trip – before it’s out of date.

Anyhow, despite only having a few days, I did manage to enjoy the following:

6 beaches
Lots of lobster – barbecued several times; in massala sauce once
Crab xacuti - hot, rich, tangy coconut curry
Amazing breakfasts of idli rice cakes, vada savoury doughnuts, eggs and omelettes, chick-pea curries, delicious fermented coconut sauce
Boat trip to Morjim turtle beach and Ajuna market, via dolphin-watching
Disasterous attempt at partying in Baga - don’t go to Mambos club at the bottom; freezing cold air con, appalling charty music, undrinkable wine, empty club other than a couple of locals, a couple of hookers and some drunk seedy tourists. Oh and they think anyone black is from Nigeria and are therefore trouble-makers, and will be refused entry.
Great Goan restaurant in Panjim, called The Upper House
Cashew and coconut palm varieties of fenni – the local distillation
Fish ambot tik - sour curry with tamarind
Loads of wonderful roti bread, straight from the tandoor, usually brushed with melted butter
Fish-curry-rice - mackerel in a coconut curry sauce with rice
Vindalho, of course

That’s quite a lot I suppose, but I had a massive list of things I wanted to try that will have to wait until next time.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Italian Charcuterie Tour – In London

If you want to explore Italy’s rich and varied charcuterie, Cantina del Ponte (Shad Thames, next to Tower Bridge) can offer this journey of flavours in London. Head Chef, Claudio Gottardo, has sourced the absolute best examples of each kind of Italian charcuterie and separated them into selections from Northern, Central and Southern Italy, as well as a set of unusual charcuterie from across Italy. Each selection will be available for a month, accompanied by a glass of wine from the region and followed by a local pasta dish – all for £19.50 per person.

January is Northern Italy, and includes bresaola (nothing like the dry stuff you get in supermarkets), sopressa, san daniele ham, melt-in-the-mouth lardo pernigotti and spec. The pasta dish – canaderli - was sold as giant gnocci, but was actually superb bread dumplings, flavoured with herbs, that I hadn’t heard of before.

Go in February for the Central Italian charcuterie menu, that encompasses wild boar salami, parma ham, mortadella and culatello. Pigs destined for culatello are fed parmesan and you can actually taste it in the meat – unusual and fantastic.


The southern Italy menu for march includes spicy salami, herby porchetta (like the French anchaud, but served thinly sliced), n’duja and sopressata- The soft, fatty n’duja is really tasty spread on bread, and very much like Spanish sobrasada, except that the Spanish version is made with smoked paprika, whereas the smokiness in the Italian one comes from smoking the finished sausage.


The ‘strange’ charcuterie selection has not been confirmed yet, but this is the one I am most looking forward to trying. Expect blood, guts and balls, made delectable through hundreds of years of recipe perfecting – can’t wait!

Cantina del Ponte

Images supplied by Nife Is Life, Italian online deli