About this blog

The expat has returned from voluntary exile and finds herself with a new domain to discover: London.


Thursday, 26 August 2010

El Camino hacia el cielo? New restaurant sets sail at Canary Wharf

Camino Puerto de Canario
The first branch of award-winning Spanish bar and restaurant Camino Cruz del Rey has become something of a King's Cross institution; a large but lively space providing commuters and local workers with a handy after-work venue (and an extensive drinks and tapas menu). By locating their new second restaurant at Canary Wharf, the folk behind Camino are obviously aiming to replicate this success with the boisterous banker crowd. At Camino Puerto de Canario, the bar area is only a little smaller than the dining section - presumably liquid refreshment is expected to account for a fair share of the business, and with the addition of table football to entice the punters, this is no doubt a fair calculation.

The airy, high-ceilinged new venue is at by the water's edge at Westferry Circus, a complex of shops and restaurants. Thanks to huge windows, it has the bonus of a river view - although given the lively atmosphere for a Wednesday night courtesy of the tequila-downing table next to us, I'm unvonvinced it would be the perfect location for an intimate dinner a deux, although some brave souls were trying.

Recently transplanted from Madrid, I was craving a tapas fix and the half-price offer during Camino's 'soft opening' period seemed too bargainous to pass up - after all, I'm used to paying around €3 for a tapa, not the £5 or so usually charged back in Blighty. Camino's menu features many dishes around that mark; with options such as gambas al ajillo (garlic prawns) at £7.75 at the higher end of the expense scale and vegetable dishes from a resonable £2.50. Divided into cheese, meat, vegetable, fish and salad sections with 3 different sharing platters on offer, their selection of tapas aims to cater to all palates and dietary requirements - as the rather eclectic verduras a la parrilla (£5.75) demonstrated. Expecting the more traditional plate of grilled peppers, courgette and aubergine, I was a bit nonplussed by the dish of greenery placed in front of me with a flourish: atop a bed of frilly lettuce - which was serving as a hiding place for a few grains of bulgur wheat - perched a pile of unlikely suspects. In addition to the anticipated peppers were an artichoke heart, a lone grilled tomato and a whole heap of mange tout and runner beans. J decided it was designed with all those waistline-conscious ladies in mind; I decided I need to pay menus more attention when ordering.

This was the only dud dish however: J's pinchitos de pollo (£5.00) were 'tender and just on the right side of spicy' (sounding a bit like a personal ad...); the chipirones a la andaluza (£5.75) came in a generous portion and were pleasantly chewy rather than the texture of a bicycle inner tube like the squid rings at a certain UK tapas chain. The batter was light and crispy, and the baby squid were complemented by a dish of ali-oli and a wedge of lemon. The aforementioned pricey prawns were perhaps not quite worth the financial outlay, but were tasty nonetheless, submerged in a pool of chilli and garlic laden olive oil.

All this was washed down with a carafe of white 2009 Vinhoz, amusingly described as 'ample and peachy, soft and fresh', which put me in mind of deodorant, but thankfully tasted significantly better than Right Guard. The page-long wine list required quite some perusing, much to the chagrin of our smiling waiter, who seemed to be on some kind of cava commission given how keen he was for us to order a glass of the sparkly stuff as an aperitif. We saved ourselves until after dinner for digestifs instead, skipping the tempting-sounding Galician almond cake with warm cream (£5.50) and the crema catalana (£4.50), which Camino veteran J tells me is better than your average creme brulee, and opting for a red Mistala dessert wine (£3.50) and an Araku (£3.70), a rich, firey Venezuelan coffee liqueur. Should diners wish to indulge, each sweet offering on the menu is paired with a complementary dessert wine.

The view from the terrace
Once our waiter was convinced that we actually didn't want anything else, we were presented with 'Las malas noticias' (the bad news): the bill neatly folded into a cute mini envelope stamped with this Spanish saying. Given that 50% was slashed from the total it was an absolute bargain for decent tapas in London, but at full-price it was just a touch expensive. However, I have no doubt it will be a welcome addition to the Canary Wharf dining scene, overpopulated as the area is by chains. And although this branch follows the camino of its older brother's branding, the restaurant has fortunately yet to acquire a 'chain' feeling. Parrilla de verduras aside, the many dishes on offer are largely authentic and served in big portions, and backed by a strong wine and cocktail list and a great location, Camino Puerto de Canario is sure to succeed.

  • Camino Puerto de Canario is at 28 Westferry Circus, E14 8RR. Tube: Canary Wharf. Details of the 'soft opening' offer can be found here.

Saturday, 21 August 2010

Supperclubbing #1: Fernandez & Leluu sets the bar high

Supper clubs, underground restaurants... Call them what you will, these dining experiences in the homes of keen amateur chefs are currently taking London by storm. After arriving from Madrid, I was keen to get in on the action, and when two last-minute places came up at Fernandez & Leluu's highly-regarded supper club in East London, I jumped at the chance and dragged my friend J along for the experience. Usually held on 3 nights each month (a consecutive Thursday, Friday and Saturday), Spanish Simon (Fernandez) and Vietnamese Uyen (Leluu) open up their home to serve around 30 diners a themed menu which changes every month.

On the bus journey there, aside from the Croatian-inspired menu emailed to us in advance, we had no idea what to expect. How many other diners would there be? Would our dinner companions be achingly cool and intimidating, know-it-all food snobs, downright weirdos or just fairly nice and normal people? Crossing our fingers frantically for the latter, we took a deep breath and knocked on the door. The friendly waitress for the evening greeted us warmly and ushered us into an inviting, trendily-decorated lounge/dining room leading onto a garden, where the other diners were mingling. Accepting the offer of a glass of wine, we made a half-hearted attempt to join in, wishing we'd arrived more than ten minutes in advance of dinner in order to get more of a chance to chat. A quick glance around the garden revealed that our fellow diners were not a scary bunch of trendy NHS-esque specs and skinny jeans wearers, in fact they seemed (sigh of relief) like normal folk, largely in their twenties and thirties.

At 8pm we sat down to dinner on our table of eight and were served an amuse bouche of mackerel pate in a chicory leaf, accompanied with artisan bread. The smooth homemade pate gave us a taste of things to come: delicious. Our international bunch of table-mates (from England, Italy, America and Norway) agreed, and we eagerly anticipated the arrival of our next dish, black squid risotto. Immaculately presented in a contrasting white dish, the black rice was topped with a dollop of chilli-flecked ali-oli and a baby squid. The flavours mingled beautifully; Simon had created a far more sophisticated dish than the similar Spanish arroz negro I've previously tried. The next stage in our feast was melon with parma ham and 'prawns ceviette' (two king prawns elegantly draped over a shot glass filled with a sublime mint and chive (I think!) dip). Whatever the sauce was, it was so damn tasty I couldn't resist using my fork to scrape the last of it from the glass (sorry Mum, I promise my manners are usually much better, and if you'd tried it you would have understood).

As our BYO wine flowed, the courses kept coming, allowing us to sample a wide range of Croatian-style cooking. Conversation with our fellow diners was a little more challenging as everyone seemed to have come in pairs (well, at least I hope the couple sitting behind us had...), but I gleaned some useful supper club tips from the girl next to me, who rated F&L as the best she had attended so far. The advertised 'fish and chips' turned out to be tuna sashimi with wasabi and slender hand-cut chips - I'm not usually a huge raw fish fan, but I think this plate-lickingly good dish (don't worry dear readers/Mum, I didn't!) might have converted me. Next in the hit parade was octoupus carpaccio with capers: the thin slices were full of flavour and their texture nothing like my last octopus experience, a tough tapa of pulpo a la gallega. The savoury delights were rounded off with pulled lamb for J, and chargrilled aubergines with a hint of chilli for my pescatarian self, both accompanied with a cold new potato and onion salad. Feeling pleasantly full but not stuffed, there was still room for the dessert of panna cotta, given an original taste with a slight orange flavour.

As we lingered over dessert, each group was presented with a personalised envelope to make their donation: a discreet way of collecting payment in-keeping with the intimate experience of dining in an undergroud restaurant. The minimum donation for Fernandez & Leluu's nights is £35 per person, which I had thought on the steep side before arriving, but given the quantity, outstanding quality and impeccable presentation of their dishes, it actually turned out to be great value. If you were served Simon's food in a restaurant, you'd be just as impressed but no doubt have to fork out far more for it.

Feeling rather tired after our Friday feast, we sloped off home, unfortunately not getting chance to chat to our hosts. However, I have no doubt I'll be back - when I can get in again that is. With their September nights sold out already, it seems that F&L's venture is going from strength to strength, and based on our experience I can see why. If you're a fan of great food who wants to try an unpretentious supper club with a welcoming atmosphere and attentive service, you better get yourself on their mailing list quick.

  • Our dinner at Fernandez & Leluu cost a £35 minimum donation, including a glass of wine on arrival. Bring your own bottle of wine - there is no corkage charge.

Thursday, 12 August 2010

The Brit Abroad has landed in London

On August 1st, I woke up somewhere I never thought I'd be: London. Don't get me wrong, I've woken up in London many times before, but this was the first time I woke up there as a resident. Yes folks, I have broken my vow never to live in the capital, much to the puzzlement of friends who have endured my protestations over the years.

Based mostly on an ill-informed dislike of big city living and a wish to escape the stress and frenetic pace of London, I'd always chosen to job search elsewhere, mainly in my beloved Spain. In 2009 I moved to Madrid, another city which initially overwhelmed me and sent me running for the safety of my barrio, but which finally won me over and gained a permanent place in my heart. It was here in Madrid that I first tested the travel blogging waters with Tales of a Brit Abroad, my take on being the alternative 'Brit abroad', and a  guide to Spain, of sorts.

After a year of expat life, I finally felt ready to haul an obscene amount of luggage onto the 11am Luton-bound flight and make the long-delayed career move to England's capital. Now that I've finally recovered from hauling half my body weight in baggage from Luton to my temporary (I must stress, temporary) home in Stepney, I'm beginning an unexpected process of cultural adjustment. After living in Madrid for a year, I was surprised to find myself more used to Spain's cultural norms than my own country's. This is most evident on the public transport spiderweb that is the metro. Err, I mean the tube. Whipping a wooden fan from your handbag and waving it frantically in front of your face while huffing about the heat is standard behaviour in Madrid, but here it earns you odd sideways looks. Yes, sideways: it's not OK to stare in London. In Madrid, I had grown used to - although I can't say I was exactly a fan of - the head-to-toe stares of fellow passengers, presumably appraising my hairstyle, choice of footwear and everything in between. The problem was, I'd even started doing it myself. Now I have to remember to keep my eyes firmly on the Metro rather than dissecting the man next to me's sartorial worth. Another issue is how to greet friends and new acquaintances: go in for the kiss or not? One kiss or two? Shake hands? A process of awkward movements and ear kisses (or misses) inevitably ensues, no doubt leaving everyone wondering why I'm trying to foist faux-European customs on them (or sniffing their hair).

Social readjustment aside, I'm taking to London living far easier than expected. I can't say I have the tube (there, I said it) map stored in my head yet, but I'm starting to get used to its gargantuan size and work out how it all fits together. The grey weather will take a little more time to acclimatise to, but for now, I'm looking forward to scratching the surface of London's saturated events calendar and getting to grips with its dining scene. Watch this space for tales of cultural mishaps, restaurant reviews and city stories, as well as my all-important search for Spanish-style coffee in England's capital.