Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Santoré: We Found Our Go-To Neapolitan Pizza Place...for Now

Name Santoré
Address 59-61 Exmouth Market, Clerkenwell, London EC1R 4QL
Diners outside at Santore.
Phone 020 7812 1488
Web site none
Main dish price range £6.20-£13.80
Rating 4 stars. A stunner of a restaurant with only occasional misses.  
Recommended dishes Margherita pizza 

One could be forgiven for wondering if Santoré, our new favorite pizza joint in East London, even meets this blog's definition of an ethnic restaurant: "a restaurant serving the food of a particular ethinc group, with an aim to primarily serving expatriates from that ethnic group."  Located in trendy Exmouth Market, this bustling cafe, which strives to make authentic Neapolitan pizza, attracts a motley crowd-- a few tables of Italians, but also lots of big groups of red-faced, drunken British people just enjoying the big glasses of wine and pizza available by the meter. When Nick and I first walked in, we felt it was sort of part-way, if not all the way, in the ethnic category.  The waiters greeted us with a volley of friendly"buongiornos" and the pizza oven lurking in the corner definitely looked as authentic as authentic could be, based on our past experiences in Naples.

The typical scene at Santore.
But once we bit into the pizza we were convinced we had to include this brightly lit, low-on-atmosphere locale on the food blog. Although Santoré offers a few things that don't feel too authentically Italian (Dutch Veal Escalopes with Breadcrumbs, anyone?) diners who stick to the Neapolitan pizzas, Santore's specialty, are in for a real treat. We recommend the standard margherita pizza that appears in the pizze section of the menu-- not the pizze special section-- and sells for £6.20.  Like at any good Neapolitan pizza restaurant, this single-plate, one-person pie came to us hot and fresh out of the oven. The basil pieces were massive; the sauce tasted so fresh it burst with flavor; and the pizzaiolo nailed the absolute hardest part of the enterprise-- the center. The middle of the pie achieved that perfect, delicate balance where it managed to be hot, gooey, and melt-in-your mouth delicious, without going so far that the pizza lost all integrity when you tried to lift up the first slice.

My half of our margherita was gone pretty quickly.
Before we go on with our thoughts about Santoré though, a bit of background on our pizza philosophy: We're generally what you'd call simple pizza people. There are few places-- Pauly Gee's in Brooklyn, being a big exception-- where we ever gobble up pizzas loaded with non-standard ingredients like rocket (a.k.a. arugula), lemon, and olives. At most of our most beloved Neapolitan pizza joints, we prefer to let the perfect, bare, basics (tomato, cheese, basil, and big hunks of sea salt in the crust) stand out without too much adornment. Our favorite Stateside pizza place, in fact, so dogmatically adheres to the simple-is-best philosophy that on most days it only offers five basic pizzas on its  menu-- and not one of them has meat.

So, the margherita is always a big test for us.  A secondary test that we expect most places with a good margherita to ace: The buffalo margherita, a version of the basic pie where regular mozzarella is replaced with much stronger, buffalo mozzarella instead, usually producing a more delicious result. Surprisingly though, this is not the case at Santoré.  When we ordered this pizza-- which costs £7.65 and appears in the pizze special section of the menu-- they gave us a pie that was still perfectly executed from a crust standpoint. The cheese though was chilled in the middle, and felt like it had just been pulled out of cold water by the chef-- a bizarre choice that our waiter seemed to indicate was purposeful on the restaurant's part. If so, Santoré, as good as you are, let me tell you: You aren't doing yourself any favors with that approach.

The mixed salad.
Besides the pizza, the other things on the menu were impressive without being a total wow. The mixed salad (£3.50) was a nice way to start dinner, being a pleasant mix of arugula and cherry tomatoes, dusted with crispy ham.  And the sauteed spinach (£2.40), which was buttery and piping hot, also made a lovely side. Santoré also gets some bonus points for having ample seating outside, which makes for a nice atmosphere you can watch the hustle and bustle of Exmouth Market. These cold winter days, they're heating up the outdoor tables with red heat lamps-- with surprisingly successful results. (The lamps produced the odd light in our pictures though.)

For now, we're loving our post-gym trips to Santoré-- so much so we've already been back three times. We're going to keep looking for that pitch-perfect buffalo margherita though. We have a few more far-flung places to try that we crowd sourced with some Italians we know, so we'll be reporting back with more reviews soon.
Santore on Urbanspoon

Meet the New Omnivores

You might be wondering just who is running Ben's food blog these days, so I figured it's time we actually introduce ourselves.  Many of you are already familiar with the cast of characters that once regularly graced the pages of this blog-- Ben, Ellen, and the lovely Vivian.  We're longtime friends of theirs, and are honored/psyched they asked us to take over the responsibility of running this blog, which we hope can become a trusted resource for ethnic food enthusiasts and lovers of bold tastes all over London.

First up, meet Nick.  He and I met a long time ago, when we were still college students, and my tastes ranged from the terrible to the horrifying.  Having grown up in the Midwest, a place not too adventurous on the food front, my favorite foods circa 2000 included the likes of SpaghettiOs and Golden Grahams. (And steak-- I have always loved a good, bloody steak.)  Nick, however, was always a true food adventurer, having grown up in Oakland, California, a land known for its diverse range of cuisines and melting pot of general yummyness.  He convinced me that I could actually like Chinese food, which up until then I thought of as crab rangoon-- deep fried dumplings quixotically filled with cream cheese-- and goopy, corn-starch loaded main dishes. (To this day, I still prefer my Chinese to be of the dry-fried, Sichuan variety.) He also showed me Mexican food at it's finest-- introducing  me to the delicious mole at Oakland's best Mexican restaurant, El Taco Zamorano, and showing me some of the world's best fish tacos at a roadside shack in Tulum, Mexico.

Top: Nick digs into Parisian bistro food.
Bottom: Angie enjoys an arepa in Cartegena.
When Nick was living in New York in 2003 he decided he wanted to experience all the wondrous cuisines that the city had to offer, so he bought the very book that inspired this blog, Robert Sietsema's The Food Lover's Guide to the Best Ethnic Eating in New York City.  Soon, he and his co-worker at the time, Ben, this blog's one and only, were organizing treks off to the far corners of  the region-- Newark, New Jersey; Woodside, Queens-- to try out Sietsema's favorite places to get a whole host of  adventurous cuisines, ranging from standards (like Brazilian steak houses) to the uber-adventurous (Uzbek).  The two of them also saw these excursions not  just for what they were, a fun way to fuel up, but for what every food outing has the potential to be: An invaluable experience bringing together and bonding friends.  Two years later many of our ethnic food Sundays, as we called our daytime outings, included 15 or 20 people-- and one time, quite memorably, even Sietsema himself.

 His and hers pizzas in Naples.

Now, meet me, Angie. I've been a journalist at magazines in Washington, DC and New York for the last eight years. For a long time, back in the blog's original heyday, Ben used to joke that he should hire me to move to London and take over his growing food-blog empire. In those days, I wrote a lot about immigration and health care issues-- subjects that fascinate me still-- but food was always a passion.  When I moved to London this May with Nick and became a freelancer, I thought I could finally find some time to give food writing-- and this blog-- a bit of my time and effort.  After all, Nick and I were going to be trying London's best ethnic eateries anyway.  You didn't expect us to spend all our times at gastro pubs, did you?

Other fun food moments from our archives...

Discovering gelatinous noodles in Xian, China.

Sampling the octopus and sweet potato cataplana at Portugal's amazing A Eira do Mel.
We took a hike in Amalfi mostly so we could eat this sandwich.

Hanging out with our favorite naan vendors in Xinjiang, China.

Pho Express: Strong, New Banh Mi Offering In Angel

Taking in the Angel's Sunday scene, as well as its banh mi.
Name Pho Express 
Address 149 Upper Street, Unit B, London N1 1RA 
Phone none 
Web site none
Main dish price range £4-5
Rating 3.5 Stars.  Definitely go if you're in the neighborhood.  

Recommended dishes:  Banh Mi with either BBQ pork or shredded chicken

Please note: This review has since been updated.  Check out our latest musings on Pho Express here. 

My husband, Nick,  is definitely one picky person when it comes to banh mi, the Vietnamese sandwiches on toasted French bread that sparked a NYC mini-craze a couple years ago.  A native of Oakland, Nick remembers eating the warm sandwiches when he was still in high school, popping out of work with a Vietnamese co-worker to go buy them on International Avenue. So, to say the least, when we first moved to this country we were both been pretty disappointed with the incarnations of our favorite Vietnamese treat on offer in London.  The Banh Mi Bay restaurant near Holborn, while definitely cutesy and British looking, wasn't spicy enough for our taste-- and like a lot of Brit sandwiches, went a bit too heavy on the spread (in this case, pâté). The places setting up shop in Broadway Market definitely nailed the iced, Vietnamese coffee, but the their bread didn't have the toasty, flaky texture that makes banh mi such a study in the joy of opposites-- ie: moist, wet veggies on hot, heavily-toasted, crunchy bread. 

The new owner  is always ready with recommendations at Pho Express.
So we were clearly only cautiously optimistic when we learned that a banh mi place down the street from our house was getting taken over by a pair of Vietnamese cooks with family ties to the Que Viet restaurant on Kingsland Road in Hoxton. The banh mi place, a tiny, take-away sandwich counter with three seats inside-- and only a few tables on the sidewalk out front-- quickly changed its name from Ca Phe to Pho Express. The owners also went on a major charm offensive, smilingly engaging with customers, lengthening their hours late into the night (new, late-night tipsy food, people!), and often describing to anyone who would listen how their goal was to bring authentic bahn mi and pho to the neighborhood. They even tacked a map of Vietnam up to the wall inside for good measure.

And the good news is they've definitely improved substantially on East London's banh mi options.  The shop's four banh mi sandwiches-- Classic, BBQ Pork, Garlic Beef, and Shredded Chicken (all £4)-- all now boast heftier portions of fresh, hot meat, served on nearly perfect, toasted French baguettes.  Instead of just relying on Sriracha sauce to give a spicy kick-- as good as that is-- fresh chilis are now also available, along with a whole host of fresh vegetables marinating behind the counter. Blissfully, they're also still serving Ca Phe's divine Vietnamese iced coffee (£2.50), which adds the ideal, sweet milky coating to your mouth to give you at least some feeling of immunity when you start piling on the chilis. 

For now, we're leaving the restaurant in the three-star range, simply because the menu still appears to be constantly evolving-- with occasionally mixed results.  On one recent visit, for instance, they dusted our sandwich with fried pieces of onion, which was good, but somehow didn't entirely work to improve the overall flavor combination. We also haven't yet tried the two flavors of pho that the restaurant-- true to its name-- now sells for £5 (available in shrimp or beef flavors). The owner told us when asked that he gets up at 5 am every morning to go and cook up the fresh pho stock at the kitchen at Que Viet-- a perfect encapsulation of how hard he appears to be working to make this place a London-wide standout. As the weather gets colder, you can bet we'll be back to give a try.  Stay tuned, eaters!

Monday, November 21, 2011

Apollo Banana Leaf: A Fiery, Sri Lankan Gem in Tooting

Name Apollo Banana Leaf
The storefront may be unassuming, but the food is anything but.
Address 190 Tooting High Street, London SW17 0SF
Phone 020 86961423
Main dish price range £3-6
Rating 4 Stars. An excellent place to answer my craving for kohtu roti.
Recommended dishes Mutton Kothu, Squid Curry 

Web site http://www.apollobananaleaf.co.uk

Of all the ethnic cuisines that capture my imagination and set my mouth awatering, I must confess I've always had a soft spot for Sri Lankan. On days when I'm bored with the standard, prepackaged sandwich offerings widely available in London, I almost always find myself dreaming of kothu, a Sri Lankan dish made up of of cut up rotti bread that's doused in egg, spiced to perfection and then lightly fried over a stove top. In the land of bland that can sometimes characterize the UK restaurant scene, Sri Lankans also stand out from not beign afraid to make their dishes hot and spicy--- provided you ask for it that way.  The best Sri Lankan curries are both rich and milky, while also being scorching and scintillating at the same time.

I dream of kothu like this on a regular basis.
So I was pretty excited when I first found my way to Apollo Banana Leaf, a tiny Sri-Lankan and South-Indian curry house located along a quiet section of Tooting's bustling high street. I'd read that Apollo is a favorite spot of London's sizable Tamil community, and when we walked in, the friendly staff was sure enough buzzing around a large table packed with what appeared to be three generations of a single South Indian family. A young looking, presumably Sri Lankan waiter with a full-on Aimee-Mann, Voices-Carry era haircut (think: spiky hair, rat tail, the works) caught our eye and gave us a smile, and I knew we were in for a real treat.

Because we're such fans of Sri Lankan food, we bypassed the traditional Indian curries on the menu and headed straight for the Sri Lankan classics. First up, the Chili Masala Dosa (£3). Like the best of its ilk, this one had the perfect crispy top layer and came with a trio of sauces, including a delicate coconut chutney and a spicy sambar that I just couldn't stop eating. The restaurant's Mutton Kothu, a steal at just £4.25, was also done to perfection. The bits of rotti making up the dish were fried, but not dried out, and the meat had enough spicy kick to make me reach for my ice-cold beer to quell that beloved, familiar, burning feeling in my esophagus.  Green beans, diced onions, and fresh chilis rounded out the dish's amazing flavors. (Regular readers know I would never normally weigh in on this, but even the vegetarian version of the dish was a stunner-- Nick made me try it during one of his health kicks.)
The delectable squid curry.

We owe how much?
Of course, being an island nation, Sri Lanka is also well-known for its amazing seafood, one of many things that distinguishes it from traditional Indian cuisine, with which it shares a lot of influences. Unlike my favorite Sri Lankan joint in New York-- New Asha in Staten Island-- the seafood here has a huge place on the menu and definitely doesn't disappoint.

After a couple visits, I'm putting my endorsement behind the restaurant's squid curry (£5.95), a well-known Sri Lankan delicacy. This one had large pieces of squid, a coconut-milk-based sauce loaded with flavor, and a few tender, cooked vegetables tucked in for good measure. When we arrived we'd given the waiter our standard pre-meal spiel, which goes a little like this: "We're not British.  We like our food extremely spicy, just like actual Sri Lankan people. Please, PLEASE, pluh-eese, believe us-- we're not joking!"  Being white as white can be-- and living in a country full of people who despise spice-- this routine doesn't always work.  At Apollo Banana Leaf, however, we're happy to report that the curry was strong enough it felt like it could burn some of our hair off.

And one of the best parts of our evening: the bill. Apollo is BYOB and boasts no corkage fees.  And since the staff also takes major pains to keep the food affordable, Nick and I were able to stuff ourselves while not even breaking the £20 mark. This is the most delicious Sri Lankan food we've ever found at this price point, certainly-- better than Jaffna House nearby, which has its fans. We'll give you all an update though after we take a romantic, two-week trip to the actual island of Sri Lanka this March.  (And no, we're not  going just for the food-- the country has amazing surfing beaches too.)

Apollo Banana Leaf on Urbanspoon