Monday, 20 September 2010

Byron, Covent Garden, London, UK- a non-meat eater's perspective

So a couple of weeks ago me, the male companion person (MCP) and the MCP's sister (let's refer to her with the code name 'Sarah') met up in London for a spot of food and culture. Due to my passing interest in food blogs I was allocated the task of identifying a few options for a relatively inexpensive and informal central London lunch venue. And the recent birthday boy MCP plumped for Byron in Covent Garden.

Now I don't eat meat (not for any strong ethical or religious reasons, I just find it easy to do without it) so lots of the blog posts I'd read singing the praises of Byron's burgers were a bit wasted on me. But I did notice that there were a lot of excellent sounding side dishes mentioned, and having established that there was a vegetarian burger option, I was pretty confident that I'd be happy eating at Byron too.

We ended up having quite a late lunch so despite it being a Saturday afternoon in the middle of Covent Garden, we pretty much had our pick of tables at Byron. The decor is all quite modern, with an open kitchen, some small booths along the walls and lots of utilitarian tables. There's also a basement dining area with additional seating.

And so the food- well as expected there is only one main vegetarian burger and a salad on the menu. I do eat fish, but in this case being pescatarian didn't increase my options. However pretty much all the sides and starters were vegetarian- huzzah! We kicked off with some olives and tortilla chips with salsa and guacamole. Both these dips tasted fresh and zingy, the chips were not of the 'straight out of the catering pack' variety, and the olives were pretty nice too.
And then onto the burgers. The veggie option consists of a grilled portabello mushroom with roasted red pepper and goats cheese. All this was topped by some salad-y stuff and a lovely aioli. It's not exactly an original combination, but it was done very well, with quality ingredients, and therefore was very tasty. In fact looking at the menu again now, I see that pretty much all of those items can also be added to a regular burger. I think this is actually reassuring, as these are obviously ingredients that are used regularly and not things that have been sitting in the back of fridge waiting for a random vegetarian to turn up.

All of the above vegetables were encased not in a doughy mass, but in light and airy bun that was well grilled for a slightly charred edge. My side of fries were hot, crispy, and importantly oil free. I also snaffled some of the MCP's giant onion rings which were also very good. I showed great restraint by not completing a triumvirate of fried things and ordering the courgette fries too, but would happily return to try them.
The others seemed very satisfied with their non-vegetarian orders too. Sarah declared her eponymous Bryon burger a big success, and the MCP's giant cobb salad was rapidly devoured.

With all our sides and nibbly bits we did seem to get through quite a lot of food, and I was very disappointed to find that I was too full to fit in one of the delightful sounding Byron milkshakes. So with friendly service, very reasonable prices (all of the above with some non-alcoholic drinks was somewhere around the £50 mark for the three of us, not including service), and tasty food, I would happily return to Byron again. It's obviously not somewhere that's particularly aimed at vegetarians but there's plenty for non-meat eaters to enjoy. And I am intending to enjoy some courgette fries and an oreo milkshake as soon as possible.

33-35 Wellington Street
London WC2E 7BN (and many other London locations)

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Banoffee cupcakes

It was the Male Companion Person's birthday recently and so I thought he was due some sort of baked item. I'd had a tin of Carnation's dulce de leche sitting in the cupboard for a while, and this seemed the occasion to make use of it. Dulce de leche is the classic caramel component of banoffee pie, and so I decided on a cake version. I made little banana cupcakes, filled with caramel and topped with clotted cream. A final grating of chocolate and tah dah- they were done.

Recipe (enough for around 18 small cakes):

110g self-raising flour
110g margarine or soft butter
60g caster sugar
2 eggs
110g mashed ripe banana
1tsp vanilla extract
397g tin of Carnation caramel dulce du leche
Around 200g clotted cream
Small amount of plain or milk chocolate for grating

Beat together the margarine and eggs, until they're well combined and then add in the vanilla, flour and sugar. Continue to mix well (alternatively bung the whole lot in a food mixer). Finally add the mashed banana. Spoon the mix into cupcake cases and bake at gas mark 4 for around 25mins or until the cakes are cooked and a light golden brown on top. Once completely cooled, cut the cakes in half and spread with a generous amount of the caramel, with a thinner coating on top. And then put a dollop of cream on top of this and finish with a bit of grated chocolate. These cakes will be fine in the fridge for a couple of days if you don't finish them all at once.

These banoffee cakes are pretty rich, but they work really well as a cake for a special day. Using slightly less sugar than normal in the cake mix and the presence of banana, in combination with the caramel, make for a decadent dessert rather than one that is tooth-achingly sweet. And obviously clotted cream improves all things.

Carnation caramel dulce du leche
I rate it 9/10

Cost: Around £1.78

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

The Orchard, Grantchester, Cambridge, UK

I do like a scone. And one of the best places to eat one is The Orchard in Grantchester. And don't just take my word for it- Rupert Brooke, Virginia Woolfe, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Jawaharlal Nehru and, ummm, Stephen Fry all thought so too. Well their thoughts on scones might actually be unknown, but they all definitely frequented The Orchard during their time in Cambridge.

You only have to travel a mile or so out of the city to find the village of Grantchester. It's filled with lots of lovely little cottages, a couple of pubs, The Orchard, and not too much else. The Orchard, as the name indicates, is an orchard of apple and various other fruit trees with lots of deckchairs dotted about it. The site also has a little Rupert Brooke museum marking its link to the poet who immortalised it in verse, and more importantly a tea room from which you can buy savoury things for lunch, a range of cakes, and importantly scones. It's self-service so you will have to queue up with a tray canteen-stylee, but with tables scattered randomly all over the place I don't think waitress service would work very easily here.

So on what now appears to be one of the last sunny days of the summer, the male companion person and I took ourselves off in search of a cream tea. The Orchard can get ridiculously busy at the height of summer with students, tourists and residents all competing for available deckchairs. But in late August we had a bit more choice when selecting our dining spot. We went for a classic choice of freshly baked scones, clotted cream (Rodda's), jam and tea for two (which came to around £11.00). The scones were huge, but not too dense or doughy, and perfect smothered in cream and jam. The tea was an adequate if not very exciting Twinings Earl Grey, and I do think that The Orchard could jazz up this side of things. But overall this was still an excellent cream tea.

My only gripe with our tea was due to some highly annoying winged visitors that decided to join us. I guess sitting in a fruit orchard with pots of jam in summer is probably asking for wasp trouble, but it was bloody annoying nevertheless, though my shrieking and arm waving probably didn't help things. Note to self- if running away from a wasp maybe do not grab the jam-filled scone in panic too, as this is not likely to make the wasp go away.

Thankfully the wasps did eventually lose interest and left us in peace to laze around in our deckchairs. And after a while I thought that the best way to get over the recent wasp trauma was to, ahem, eat some cake. On offer were Victoria sponge, carrot cake, chocolate fudge cake, and coffee and walnut (all around £3.00), which I eventually plumped for. The light coffee sponge, and the not too sweet buttercream icing, meant that despite eating a huge scone quite recently, fitting in this piece of cake too was in fact a piece of cake (see what I did there?!).

So if you want to follow in the footsteps of poets, philosophers and prime ministers, and enjoy a scone while lazying about in the sun in a deckchair I thoroughly recommend a visit to The Orchard.

The Orchard Tea Garden
45-47 Mill Way
Grantchester CB3 9ND

NB The Orchard is open all year round, not just during summer, and has an indoor seating area too.

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Cote, Cambridge, UK

The corner of Bridge Street and Thompson's Lane seems to have been a bit of a blighted spot for restaurants in Cambridge. Over the years I have known this space to be a Garfunkel's, some sort of racing car themed American diner, the now apparently out of business Edwinns, and most recently Cote.

So on a Saturday night when myself and the male companion person had decided that we would have a change from the excitement of sitting on the sofa and watching telly, we decided to give the newest Bridge Street incumbent a go for dinner. I'd never heard of Cote before, but have subsequently found out that it's a small chain mainly based in the south of England. The Cambridge outpost occupies quite a big space, but one that is divided up by various pillars and walls into several sections. They've obviously done their best to maximise table numbers, but (just about) left enough space to avoid having to sit in the lap of your fellow diners. There was lots of nice low lighting and and candles in the evening, and it all led to quite a cosy atmosphere.

We ordered some olives and pissaladiere-style flatbread to start with, from a menu that is vaguely French but more pan-European really. The olives were perfectly pleasant, and the bread topped with Reblochon cheese was like a nice, crispy cheese on toast. We both choose the seafood linguine for our main courses, and this came with a good quantity of mussels, prawns and clams. I was expecting more of a sauce for the pasta rather than individual bits of tomato and garlic, but it was all pretty good none the less.

This all left just enough room to squeeze in a pudding. I had a perfectly acceptable but not amazing chocolate fondant, while the male companion person had a highly praised creme caramel. Service was attentive if a little slow at times, but actually the spacing between courses probably allowed us to fit in more food overall (which can't be a bad thing). The bill for all of the above, with a couple of alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks, a coffee, and service was around £60, which I thought was quite good value. Although I noted that they added 12.5% service automatically, rather than let you decide an amount, which I always think is slightly dubious but possibly not the worst crime in the world.
But that issue aside Cote was actually a very nice place to have dinner. The service was good, they bring you water without asking, and the food was fresh and tasty. And I guess the fact that Cote is part of a chain shouldn't diminish my enjoyment of all of that.

21-24 Bridge Street
Cambridge CB2 1UF