Tasty Scandinavian fare at Aster

I love that you feel you can travel the world while living in London – well in a foodie sort of way you can. My last restaurant story was about Portuguese food and today we’re heading into Scandinavia. The food of Aster is a mix of Executive Chef Helena Puolakka’s Nordic heritage and her French training.

The Nordic countries comprise Sweden, Norway, Finland, Iceland and Denmark – and would you believe I’ve been to four of them! Norway is the only one currently unvisited. And I have eaten fabulous food in all of these countries – most notably Denmark and Iceland recently – so I was very keen to visit Aster. In addition, my lunch companion was to be Amanda, who I travelled to Sri Lanka with last year, and whose parents are both Nordic. Love starting with a bit of inside knowledge.

Aster has a restaurant, cafe and deli and we chose to eat in the downstairs cafe. Because I preferred the look of the menu. It’s in a shiny new building right near Victoria Station. I’m amazed at how many of those there are these days, another part of London that’s been transformed. There’s a warm welcome and a stylish, modern interior and a very exciting menu to ponder.

After much deliberation we decided to go the Smorgasbord route (now there’s a good word…smorgasbord)! Not an easy decision with all the fabulous fish and meat dishes on offer.  Like wild reindeer sausages, venison pie, hot smoked plaice, arctic char and baltic fish pie. But smorgasbord it was and what a great move that turned out to be.

What’s on the menu

From the Jar section we opted for the hot smoked potted salmon and the pickles which arrived in these stylish little jars. Stylish is a word you’ll use often on any visit to Aster. There’s some beautiful food plating going on here – and it’s all kept so simple, letting the distinctive flavours shine through.

Beautiful glass bowls of pate and pickles

You really can’t go Nordic and not go herring. Luckily I’m a pretty big herring fan and even had curried herrings on my waffle for breakfast in Iceland (absolutely delicious it was, too, and I even convinced some of my fellow travellers to give it a try). Today they were done three ways with sherry, blackcurrant and dill and served with new potatoes and toasted rye bread. A totally spectacular combination of flavours – I particularly loved the blackberry marinated ones.

Herring three ways with dill potatoes and rye bread

From the top of the Smorgasbord menu we chose two dishes. This luscious sliced pork belly which was served with apple and mustard butter on more rye. The richness of the pork matched so brilliantly with the tart apple, spicy mustard and earthy bread.

The most succulent of belly pork

And then there was this colourful plate of mushroom and potato ‘hash’ served with lingonberries. The berries added a lovely tartness to a warming dish – they are a distant cousin to cranberries, smaller and juicer, and are a wild fruit native to the Northern hemisphere and abundant in Scandinavia.

Our final choice came from the Meat section and was this beautifully soft and salty salami flavoured with a bit of fennel. Fennel salami gets me every time, and this was right up there as one of the best I’ve tried.

Delicately flavoured fennel salami

Amanda’s local knowledge also came in useful when it came to the liquor! Hence she recommended that we order a glass of aquavit each. It’s a Scandinavian liquor (obviously) that gets its distinctive flavours from the spices and herbs used. The main ones should be caraway or dill. Aquavit is not for the faint-hearted with its 40% alcohol by volume – and I absolutely loved it. Served chilled in these stunning little glasses it certainly added to the whole Nordic experience. Most of all, I can definitely visualise more aquavit passing my lips.

Plenty of pale liquor to keep us going!

Today’s price point

And finally, the money.

Aster is very reasonably priced with our six dishes from the Smorgasbord today costing us £31.50. It was plenty of food for two people.

If you eat off the a la carte menu a starter is going to cost you between £4.50 and £9.00.

Mains are between £11.50 and £22.00.

Aster is at 150 Victoria Street, Westminster, London SW1.

They also do a fabulous-looking Nordic Afternoon Tea available from 3pm to 5.30pm for just £15 per person.

The taste of Portugal at Bar Douro

Time for some authentic Portuguese dishes at Bar Douro.

I’m having a bit of an exciting time discovering newly created parts of London! Sounds strange, but this City is constantly evolving and today when I walked from Waterloo Station in search of Flat Iron Square everything looked totally different from when I worked in the area a few years back. New buildings had popped up, old ones been demolished, whole streets were closed to construction work…let’s just say I ended up getting a little lost, it was like a brand new world!

Anyway, after some interesting meandering I arrived at the New Flat Iron Square. Wow! There’s a range of food stalls, bars, restaurants all nestling under the arches. The delicious aromas would have been enough to guide me there if I had really got completely lost. Today’s destination is Bar Douro where owner Max Graham has transported local culinary secrets from Portugal and matched them with a carefully chosen Portuguese wine list. He and his family have been making wine and port for two centuries in the Douro Valley (hence the name, I guess). I have spent very little time in Portugal (should do something about that really) so was delighted to learn more.

Bring on the Portuguese flavours

The menu’s all about sharing and there’s a mix of snacks and small plates. Patanisca de Bacalhau – salt cod fritters – were light and fluffy with a perfect crunch and just enough fishy flavour.

Tender salt cod fritters with their spicy dip

Gambas a giulho – garlic prawns came with heads and tails on but deshelled for easy munching. Beautifully luscious, this simple dish is one of my favourites. Love this plate too – that blue and white combo totally does it for me.

Bar Douro: garlic prawns

Tasty garlicky prawns to savour

The croquettes de Alheira – croquettes of smoked Portuguese sausage were cleverly presented on this beautiful tile. Alheira is traditionally made from any meat other than pork and has that beautiful smokey intensity, here all wrapped up in a crunchy little bundle. Must find some of these sausages as I think they’d make a great ingredient for cooking with.

Bar Douro: sausage croquettes

Smokey croquettes served on more blue and white

Then from the small plates section we went for the Prego no prato Bavette steak with confit egg. An exotic sounding and looking dish that also came with vibrant spinach puree and matchstick fries. A great combo of ingredients that was sadly served a bit too cold which took something of its deliciousness away.

Bar Douro: Bavette steak

Steak, egg and chips Portuguese style?

We sat at the stylish marble counter (something I seem to be doing a lot of these days), so could watch the chef’s preparations while we sipped on some delicious Portuguese rose.

Bar Douoro: rose wine

A touch of Portugal, with wine, in Southwark

The interior is modern and light-filled with those fabulously Portuguese blues and whites.

Bar Douro: the view

Looking down the counter

Bar Douro: outside

Look for the Bar Douro Sign on the wall and you’ve arrived

As I said there’s a world of food choices outside, too, and plenty of seating space. Perfect for a chilled summer lunch in the sun. I particularly like the look (and aromas) of this Vietnamese food truck.

Bar Douro: what's outside

Vietnamese offerings from the van outside

Today’s price point

And finally, we paid £33 for our four dishes. Wines start from £23 a bottle.

Bar Douro is at Arch 35B, Flat Iron Square, London SE1 1TD

South-East Asian tapas at Yuu Kitchen

Today we’re heading east to Yuu Kitchen in London’s Commercial Street. It’s the road that runs north to south from Shoreditch High Street to Whitechapel High Street though the East End district of Spitalfields.

Carved out of slums in the mid-19th century it was soon made notorious by Jack the Ripper and is home to The Ten Bells pub where The Ripper is thought to have partaken in a drink or two. At the other end of the spectrum you’ll find Christ Church Spitalfields, Nicholas Hawksmoor’s Baroque masterpiece.

Until pretty recently the street was mainly known for its street walkers, but that’s all changed. Now it’s emerging as a great place to eat and drink with its markets and plenty of bars, coffee bars and restaurants to choose from.

Yuu Kitchen opened late last year and serves food inspired by the flavours of South East Asia and the Pacific Rim. Some of my very favourite flavours! It’s a bright contemporary space with counter seating and walls decorated with vibrant pop art.

What’s on the menu?

The menu is divided into sections entitled: Bites, Crunch, Grill ‘n Wok, Fish and of course Bao. There’s a selection of small plates to share. We sat at the counter overlooking the happy busy-ness of the kitchen and munched on some edamame beans (Bites) while we pondered our choices.

Yuu Kitchen: edamame beans

The popping of edamame beans got us started

Some decisions are easy – I mean who can resist Bao? Described as Chinese steamed bread rolls, they can be filled with myriad stuffings. Today we tasted the special offer – Bao with baby back ribs and an Asian barbecue sauce. It’s hard to put the pleasure of eating Bao into words, the rich tastiness of the filling wrapped in a delicate cushion of deliciousness. Kind of like a really exotic sandwich – a taste and texture sensation.

Yuu Kitchen: Bao with baby back rib

The beautifully soft bao filled with baby back rib meat

Vietnamese vegetarian Ssam from the Crunch section offered a plate of spring rolls filled with corn, mushroom and noodles, wrapped in lettuce and served with herbs and a homemade sweet chilli sauce. The flavours of Vietnam exploded in my mouth, how I love this type of food.

Yuu Kitchen: Vietnamese spring rolls

The crunch of spring rolls with herbs, lettuce and chilli

Tuna tataki is one of my absolute favourite dishes. Today’s offering of seared, succulent sashimi-style tuna was served with pickled radish, spring onion and spicy mayonnaise – oh and pomegranate seeds to make it look even prettier. The best way to eat tuna – melt-in-the-mouth tasty.

Yuu Kitchen: Tuna tataki

Beautifully seared tuna with a delicate Asian dressing

Time for Bao number two –  soy and buttermilk crispy chicken served with carolina reaper chilli sauce and daikon pickle. Piping hot chicken in a crispy batter with a wonderful chilli bite from the sauce. I could eat a plate of these.

Yuu Kitchen: Chicken Bao

The best chicken sandwich ever? Very likely

Heading for the Grill ‘n Wok section we had to try the BBQ octopus as we’d seen the chef preparing several portions in front of us and it looked too good to resist. Braised with Sake, mirin and soya and served with a ginger and garlic sauce it was beautifully tender and absorbed the flavours perfectly.

Yuu Kitchen: BBQ octopus

Tender octopus in a lovely gingery garlic sauce

And now for dessert and time to dive into another Bao offering. This time the little beauty was deep fried and served with your choice of ice cream. We went for pistachio. A dessert to dream of with its mix of hot and cold, soft and crunchy, creamy and nutty. And doesn’t it look good!

Yuu Kitchen: Ice cream Bao

For dessert – an ice cream sandwich – so delicious

Yuu Kitchen: Interior

The modern funky look that is Yuu Kitchen

Today’s price point

Our lunch cost £53 including two glasses of wine. It was a feast of food for two.

There is a selection of beer, wine and sake on offer.

Yuu Kitchen is at 29 Commercial Street, London E1. Aldgate East is the closest tube station.

 

Square Meal

Savouring Basque delights at Lurra

Today we’re heading into Marylebone in central London. It’s kind of behind Marble Arch (north of Oxford Street) and an easy place to get lost with its labyrinthine streets lined with some of the Capital’s trendiest eateries and bars. Also a good place to get lost – you certainly won’t go hungry or thirsty here.

When I first moved to London I lived very close to the Marylebone Road and soon learned of the trickeries the English language throws at you when it comes to correct pronounciation. And the importance on getting it right! How they laughed when I told new friends I lived off the Mary-la-bone road. It’s nothing to do with Mary – despite the spelling – or la either. I was soon murmuring Mar-lee-bone under my breath until it settled for good in my grey matter. Don’t get me started on the hilarity I caused on telling people I worked in Grosvenor Square (even trickier to pronounce), but that’s another story.

Anyway, back to our actual destination for today, set in the lively streets of Mar-lee-bone. Lurra (which means land in Basque) is the second restaurant from Melody and Nemanja and opened in 2015. Their first was Donostia (which is the Basque word for San Sebastian), which opened in 2012 and is just down the road.

The legend goes that the pair were inspired after an unplanned stop in San Sebastian to leave their City careers and go into the restaurant business, opening establishments offering traditional Basque-style cuisine properly done. Must say I’ve had plenty of similar revelations myself but have never actually got down and done anything about it – so good for them…and for making a success of it.

Lurra is bright and modern with lots of pale wood and glass – and a lovely courtyard off to the side. Love a courtyard – straight on my list for next year’s summer eating.

The menu has happy Spanish familiarity about it, though I’ve never been to San Sebastian – something of a culinary hole for a Spainophile like me. Oh well, I’ve put that on one another of my many lists populating my many notebooks.

Gordal olives have happily become a regular fixture in my foodie life recently. Gordal means fat in Spanish and these plump babies are firm and juicy. Truly the king of olives.

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Fat olives make the perfect start to any meal

And then there’s anchovies, another Spanish star. This dish is called Matrimonio which, fairly obviously, means marriage in Spanish – and a great one it is too, with a mix of salted anchovies and boquerones which are marinated in vinegar, olive oil and garlic. Served up with mango vinaigrette and a pile of the sweetest marinated peppers. The flavours hit your taste buds with a real zing, and the different textures complete a joyful dish.

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Two types of anchovies in a pretty row

There’s a range of tapas dishes and a section called Large Sharing Plates, which includes a yummy-sounding slow-cooked suckling lamb shoulder. Feeling like a good meaty hit we went for the 14-year Rubia Gallega – Galician Blond steak dry aged on the bone. It was served on very medium-rare on a hot iron platter with a sprinkling of salt. Plenty for two to share, it’s rich and served with the bone on the side – a bone I wanted to take home to chew on. And somewhat appropriate that I was eating a bone in Mar-lee-bone. Sorry, couldn’t resist that.

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The aromas leap off this beautiful steak, making your mouth water

Steak and tomato is a dream combo for me. And the Spanish know their tomatoes. This is called peeled Pata Negra tomato salad and is marinated in some kind of magic. Sweet, soft and tangy.

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A tomato salad that brings happiness

We started off with a glass of bubbles. Cava is one of my favourite drinks and looks especially tempting in this stylish glass. Oh and there’s the courtyard in the background.

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Cava to go with the Gordal olives…yum

Another happy Spanish lunch in London Town. So happy I can enjoy those irresistible Basque flavours without the need for EasyJet.

Today’s price point

Lunch for two cost £85.50 without wine. Most of that went on the stunning steak which is £65.

White wine starts from £22 a bottle, rose is £34 and red starts from £24. It’s worth mentioning that the restaurant has a very special selection of one of the most fabulous Spanish wines ever (in my opinion), Vega Sicilia, which you can enjoy for £280 a bottle. I better start saving now!

Lurra is at 9 Seymour Place, Marylebone W1H 5BA.

The taste of Venice in chic St James

Today we’re eating in London’s West End in swanky St James. The area was developed in the 17th century as a residential location for the British aristocracy. Now it’s home to fine clothing stores, chic art galleries, gentlemen’s clubs and beautiful terraces. And of course its share of top restaurants. It certainly exudes class and you can feel a general poshness in the air.

Veneta is the latest in the fantastic Salt Yard stable which includes one of my favourites – its sister in Soho – Ember Yard. The elegant eatery is in the shiny new St James Place area and its menu is inspired by classic Venetian dishes. It has a real feel of glamour and plushness, the kind of restaurant that lifts your spirits as you walk in the door. You can just feel good things happen here!

We started off with heavenly focaccia, topped with a dusting of crunchy salt and rosemary sprigs.

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Warmly soft and flavoursome focaccia

I’m a bit of an anchovy addict and these were tastily luscious, served simply with paper thin toast and butter. The perfect way to get the gastric juices going.

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An anchovy snack to delight

Autumn brings beetroot to many menus and this colourful seasonal salad was packed with flavour. Slivers of salt-baked carrots and beef were served with sheep’s ricotta, date puree and oregano.

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A colourful autumn display

From the small plates section we chose this kid goat ragu with fresh pappardelle. Seems like goat is popping up on menus all around London Town and I must say I’m loving it. This ragu was in a class of its own, beautifully rich and silken, coating the wonderful fresh pasta.

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Goat seems to be all the rage in London

A bowl of polenta with parmesan cream and topped with earthy girolles from the vegetable section made the perfect accompaniment to the richness of the pork.

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Creamy polenta and earthy mushrooms

Our meaty choice was the charcoal grilled pork ribeye. The tastiest piece of pork I’ve had in a while, with that irresistible charred flavour and courgettes on the side.

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Pork chop perfectly charred

And then it was dessert time. I’m not much of a one for pudding but Italian sweets are not for resisting. Their mini tiramisu tower was exquisite, I especially loved the coffee cream on the side.

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Finishing the traditional Italian way

Today’s price point

Our lunch came to £50 for two people.

We opted to eat tapas-style mainly from their small plate section. There are also large plates on offer.

Veneta is at 3 Norris Street, St James W1.

It’s open from 7am Monday to Friday and 9am Saturday and Sunday for all-day dining (including breakfast).

The Barbary: It’s simply stupendous

Today I’m back in Covent Garden – in the delightful surrounds of Neal’s Yard. It’s a really cute, characterful area that is home to sister restaurant to The Palomar which I visited recently.

The Barbary takes its inspiration from the Barbary Coast – an area around the Atlas Mountains which includes Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya. The area was infamous for its pirates and until the beginning of the 20th century was home to the Barbary lions which are now sadly extinct.

The menu reflects these countries from the Atlantic Coast and also through to the Mediterranean Sea and Israel. It makes for an amazing mix of ingredients and some of the most stunning and different food I’ve eaten in a while.

Food comes in tapas-size portions so there are plenty of opportunity for tasting. Seating is around the bar looking into the open and buzzing kitchen. You can’t book so there’s always the risk of queuing (one of my pet hates) so I’d recommend you go for a later lunch (after 2pm) or an early dinner (around 6pm) and you shouldn’t have much of a wait.

It’s the sort of menu that needs some explanation before those big decisions are made and the staff are very keen to help and describe the dishes with passion. They make them all sound so good but even once you’ve been guided by their knowledge you’re still not sure what you’re going to get. It’s just food I hadn’t encountered before but the good news is there’s no need to stress – I’m telling you that whatever you order is going to be fabulous.

Make sure to start with the Araya which is in the snack section. Little parcels of mince grilled on the fire and served with a tahini-style dip, these are sausage rolls in a league of their own.

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Simply heavenly sausage rolls

Masbacha chickpeas are soft and succulent with a wonderfully herby dressing.

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Zesty, herby chickpeas

And then there’s the Jerusalem bagel, a tasty, elongated delicacy generously coated with sesame seeds and served with a twist of spices on the side for dipping.

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The beautifully chew Jerusalem bagel

I am partial to a bit of chopped chicken liver and again this is spectacular, I think my favourite dish of the day. It’s chopped with hard boiled eggs and spring onions and served with a creamy, mustardy sauce. Another combination made in heaven.

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Chopped chicken liver and mustard

The fattoush salad of chopped tomatoes and herbs is topped with the creamiest whipped feta and a lovely limey dressing. A real star of a salad.

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Juicy tomatoes and soft clouds of feta

Our waitress enthusiastically recommended we order the pata negra neck which came with golden bulbs of roast garlic. I don’t really have the words to describe this amazing piece of meat. Rare and tender with a lovely charred crust from the fire, it melted on my tongue, the richest of flavours dancing across my taste buds.

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Melt-in-the-mouth flavourful meat

The Barbary’s bread is also stupendous. This amazing buttery nan was the perfect partner for the fishy taramasalata-like dip in all its pinkness.

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Naan and a fishy dip

The final wonder today is the goat. The second time I’ve seen goat on a London menu recently, it was roasted, shredded and crisped up on the fire. Served on a bed of garlicky tzatziki and topped with pickled red onion and fresh mint. Wow!

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Anyone for goat gyro?

I loved the mats which give you a clear picture of the region that’s inspired this marvellous food.

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I thought I’d also treat you to a picture of the beautiful Barbary lion with its dark mane that goes all the way around its stomach. They needed to keep warm up in those Atlas Mountains.

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And here’s a magnificent Barbary lion

Today’s price point

This array of dishes cost around £70.

Wine starts from £29 a bottle.

The Barbary is at 16 Neal’s Yard, Covent Garden.