Category Archives: Small bites

Reviewed: Tapas Brindisa, London [Bankside Book]

From the book “Bankside”

Tapas Brindisa
18-20 Southwark Street
Borough Market
London SE1 1TJ
Tel: 020 7357 8880
Monday to Saturday, 11am-11pm Friday and Saturday, Spanish breakfast 9am-11am
No bookings

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For anyone with more than a passing interest in good food, there can be few more pleasurable experiences than taking breakfast at Tapas Brindisa in the heart of London‘s foodie destination of choice: Borough Market.

Friday or Saturday mornings is the time to catch this relatively new, but already immensely popular, Spanish eaterie at its quietest. Order a dish of grilled Leon chorizo, eggs and potatoes to have with your coffee, or nibble on a slice of Catalan Llesca (country toast) with lavender honey. The mood is mellow as the market slowly begins to hum into life around you.

Brindisa and Borough go together like a plate of their Villarejo Manchego cheese and its accompanying quince paste. The Brindisa market stall has been at Borough for more than seven years, selling everything from Spanish smoked paprika to giant paella pans. On Saturdays there is always a long, snaking queue for its fresh chorizo, rocket and optional piquillo pepper rolls, the spicy sausages cooked on a huge open grill.

Tapas Brindisa chef José Manuel Pizarro, formerly at Gaudi and The Eyre Brothers, says he appreciates having suppliers a stone’s throw from his kitchen. “I can select ingredients personally and see what is good on the day,” he says.

The restaurant is on a corner site and what it lacks in space is made up for in its warm, inviting décor. Borough-based architects Greig and Stephenson, who planned the recent, dramatic refurbishment of the entire covered market, designed the restaurant with its iroko and black walnut wood banquettes and striking combination of tomato red and creamy beige walls. The traditional ham box is integral to the design. Succulent sides of ham are visible through its plate glass window and entice customers in from Southwark Street.

Pizarro hails from Cáceres in south-west Spain, but prepares dishes from across the country using a variety of regional products. The seasonal menu is divided into cold and hot tapas. Charcuterie, cured fish and speciality cheeses dominate the former and are available throughout the day. A selection of acorn-fed Ibérico cured meats washed down with a glass of La Gitana, a dry, straw-coloured sherry from San Lucar de Barreneda, makes a perfect marriage.

Other choices include La Peral blue cheese with prunes or some cured Cantabrian anchovies from Ortiz. Alternatively, you could perch on a stool at one of the tall tables and have a glass of Rioja with a snack of salted Marcona almonds or hot pickled chillies.

Tapas Brindisa’s commitment to the quality of its cured meats is such that it employs a ‘cortador’, or professional ham carver. In Spain master carvers are integral to the Spanish way of life. Now, in a snug restaurant under south London’s railway lines, the impressive figure of José Daniel “Chuse” from Aragón demonstrates to Brindisa staff, as well as curious customers, this traditional skill, honed over the centuries.

Those who drop by for lunch or in the evenings can choose from a selection of hot tapas that includes deep-fried Monte Enebro cheese with orange blossom honey, Pardina lentil and Alejandro chorizo stew and Catalan spinach with pinenuts and raisins. Or they may opt for a simple fillet steak or potato omelet.

The wine list is small but perfectly formed. One of the restaurant’s favorite suppliers is Telmo Rodriguez, a dynamic young Basque winemaker whose family has had an estate in Rioja for years. Rodriguez has made a name for himself revitalizing ailing vineyards across Spain. His Basa 2004, Verdejo Rueda, a fresh, grassy white, is a favorite among regulars.

The restaurant’s clientèle reflects its neighborhood, being a mix of ‘suits’ holding impromptu meetings over tapas, locals and market-goers, including at the weekends visitors from abroad and families.

What sets Brindisa apart from the capital’s other tapas bars is its emphasis on provenance. Owner Monika Linton began her business importing Spanish cheeses in 1988 and has forged strong relationships with Spanish suppliers ever since. She travels the country sourcing only what she deems to be the best of the best.
This is reflected in the restaurant’s menu where suppliers’ names are always cited: from the Joselito cured meats to Ramon Peña’s Galician squid.

Thus, the beautifully packaged 70% solid chocolate made by renowned Barcelona chocolatier Enric Rovira may seem a little pricey – and it is arguably a tad too sophisticated for the children – but it makes a fine cup of dark hot chocolate to sip on a chilly morning before launching oneself into London’s foodie heaven.

Review: Delfina Studio Café, London [Bankside Book]

From the book “Bankside”

Delfina Studio Café
50 Bermondsey Street
Tel: 020 7357 0244
Open daily for lunch, Friday dinner

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The Romans beat leather on Bermondsey Street and it was not that long ago that the last tannery, specializing in exotic hides such as ostrich and boa constrictor, moved out of the area. But when entrepreneur Digby Squires bought the former chocolate factory that houses Delfina Studio Café in 1994, the neighborhood was little more than a run-down assortment of derelict warehouses and workshops. However, the vast open spaces and hive of outbuildings that once churned out sugar-plum chocolate and popping candy were the perfect home for his charity, the Delfina Studio Trust, an organization that helps young visual artists.

Today its three gallery spaces and 35 studios contribute to a thriving heritage conservation area that has attracted a vibrant mix of small, craft-based businesses, restaurants and boutiques.

Not only are the resident artists given the chance to develop their work without commercial pressure, they are also lucky enough to be able to have a permanent table reserved for them in the sleek Delfina Studio Café, which has evolved considerably since its days as an in-house canteen.

The restaurant, with its airy, open-plan space, scrubbed floor and whitewashed walls, is like a vast blank canvas. In that way it is the perfect match for head chef Maria Elia who brings to the kitchen a rich palette of experience and influences. This is someone who has worked on a luxury private yacht, sourcing produce at markets and fish on the docks of Greece, Turkey and Cuba. Headhunted to be chef of a country club in Dorset, she was asked on her first day to design a kitchen in a squash court.

In Phoenix, Arizona she learned the cooking of the deep south and how to make Tortilla soup. She revitalized the menu at a health spa near Montepulciano in Italy and is still so passionate about her craft that she spends her holidays on cookery courses in India and Thailand, or in the kitchens of restaurants in Sydney and Melbourne. Her conventional apprenticeship includes spells at London’s Coast restaurant and at Ferran Adrià’s renowned El Bulli near Barcelona, recently voted the best restaurant in the world.

The result, she insists, is not “fusion”, rather using the best ingredients in less obvious ways. This might translate as a starter of pan-fried squid with zhoug-dressed butternut squash and a main course of Miso-marinated perch with pickled cabbage and beansprout salad; or roast rabbit with artichoke skordalia, shaved fennel and crispy potatoes. “Taste, texture and presentation” is Elia’s mantra and there is clearly no rule-book. “Why does a meringue have to be in the shape of a nest? Why not a square or a triangle?” she asks.

Such adventurism is in safe hands, however, as the dishes, while always inventive, are also delicious. The menu changes every three weeks and there is always a special of the day as well as a staple dish of Australian fish. This always popular choice came about as the result of a good relationship with an Australian seafood supplier – it is also a deliberate attempt to avoid using species of fish that are suffering depleted stocks. Elia sees it as a chef’s duty to “give those fish a break” and allow restocking for future generations.

So, one might find Barramundi on the menu, or Dhufish, Albacore, Spangled Emperor, Leather Jacket or Sweet Lips. Although the names may be unfamiliar, albeit colorful, all the fish are meaty and dense and served simply chargrilled with a big wedge of lemon and some organic leaves.

The atmosphere at Delfina is relaxed and the décor soothing: touches of pale green and navy blue accent the white backdrop and there is space to breathe. All reasons the restaurant attracts a mélange of artistic types and local crafts people, as well as staff from the nearby Financial Times and City workers. Some simply drop in for coffee and to view the studio’s permanent exhibition, which is owner Digby’s Squire’s personal collection built up over many years.

And there is always the permanent table of resident artists for added color. What is certain is that the artists that have moved on from Bermondsey Street – and the list comprises a stellar collection of Turner Prize nominees including Keith Tyson, Mark Wallinger and the Wilson Twins – will be missing those lunches.

Review: The Anchor & Hope, London [Bankside Book]

From the book “Bankside”

The Anchor & Hope
36 The Cut

Tel: 020 7928 9898
Monday to Saturday, lunch and dinner
No bookings

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When celebrity chef and original enfant terrible of the gastro world Marco Pierre White recently handed back his Michelin stars and extolled the virtues of simple food, you knew there must be something going on. And that something appears to be, in London at least, a return to good, wholesome, unpretentious food. Even, dare one say it, a renewed appreciation of traditional English cooking – a concept that the Anchor & Hope, a down-to-earth pub near Waterloo station, embraces to the full.

From the outside, the place is unprepossessing: a no-frills corner pub, painted gun-metal grey, sited under a dreary red-brick council block. Step inside and there are no great revelations: the latest owners took just one month to redesign the interior. Much of this time was spent stripping out existing fittings to create a pared-down, open-plan space with scratched floorboards, a bar and adjoining dining room and a tiny open kitchen. The walls are Roast Beef red and the ceiling is Nicotine Yellow (actually a rather pleasing shade of cream). More shabby than chic.

If it’s just a drink you’re after, the pub has Bombardier and Eagle on tap. There’s a commendably priced wine list that is firmly rooted in the Old World with French varieties in the ascendant. Or you might choose a crisp, dry sherry to whet your appetite, served in a plain ice-frosted tumbler. Ask for a dish of croutons with rabbit rillettes or brandade to accompany your drink.

The menu is deliberately ‘deconstructed’ which means you pick whatever takes your fancy with many dishes lending themselves to being starters or main courses. That said, hearty eaters will relish the selection. Begin perhaps with potato soup and foie gras, smoked herring and lentils, whole crab and mayonnaise, or a plate of winkles. Follow this with smoked Old Pot chop and prunes, or fennel and Berkswell gratin, braised venison and red cabbage or devilled kidneys and potato cake.

The emphasis is on seasonal dishes, the kitchen champions the less commonly used meat cuts, such as mutton and duck’s heart (prepared in a risotto) and many of the raw ingredients are sourced at nearby Borough Market.

The pub has become known for its big, often slow-cooked, dishes, which are delivered to the table in steaming earthenware pots to be shared with friends. There is shoulder of lamb with gratin dauphinois (“for 5-ish” suggests the menu), duck stuffed with faggots with turnips and beans, or pheasant with red cabbage and quince. This is sociable, democratic eating at its best.

Desserts may include panna cotta and rhubarb, lemon tart or chocolate and hazelnut cake with vanilla ice cream.

Like the wine list – a subjective selection for which manager Robert Shaw makes no apologies (“we prefer the subtleties of the traditional wine countries”) – the Anchor & Hope is a very personal venture. Shaw says the owners – himself and the two chefs – wanted to create the sort of place they themselves would want to go to: “Somewhere you could meet your friends and chat over a drink and then, after a while, have supper.”

When it opened, the capital’s chattering classes, and its restaurant critics, flocked to the Anchor & Hope and were fulsome in their praise. Giles Coren in the Times described it as “properly good”. “And,” he added, “of properly good restaurants in London, we have but a handful. Barely a clutch.” In the Sunday Times, A.A. Gill wrote: “The Anchor & Hope looks like a crap pub. It’s a brilliant restaurant. It’s what we’ve been waiting for.”

Such approbation drew the crowds, and for a while the Anchor & Hope was a victim of its own success and there just weren’t enough tables to go around. The pub has settled into a more accommodating rhythm now, however, and – as long as you are comfortable with the idea of a relaxed pre-dinner drink at the bar with a few mouth-watering nibbles – a table will be forthcoming. Tripe and chips anyone?

Burn Out: A Berkeley Home Goes up in Flames

Financial Times, June 24, 2006

On Sunday October 20 1991, Frances Dinkelspiel and her husband Gary Wayne, who live in the Bay Area of California, decided to take his parents, who were visiting from New Jersey, to brunch in San Francisco. Their roommate, Brad Rosen, was having a lazy morning. He had been partying the night before and planned to go surfing later in the day. It was hot and windy as they drove over the Bay Bridge to the city and made for Zuni Café on Market Street. A couple of hours later they stepped out onto the pavement and glanced over towards the Oakland Hills where they lived. “There was a huge vertical column of smoke rising from the hills,” says Frances. “At that moment we knew we were in trouble.”

They drove back towards home but could only go so far as all the streets leading up into the hills had been closed off. Gary begged a bicycle from a friend who lived nearby and set off to find out what he could. He didn’t get far. A group of firefighters stopped him at the end of his street and asked him where he thought he was going. They told him it was so hot they themselves had to leave. Gary abandoned the bike and hiked to the summit of nearby Claremont Canyon from where he could see the fire cutting a devastating path across the hills. “Gary called me late in the afternoon,” says Frances. “He said he had watched our house burn down. He was crying and Gary hardly ever cries.”

The Oakland Fire, one of the largest and most costly in US history, engulfed 2.5 square miles of the East Bay Hills. Twenty five people died, many of them trapped in their cars trying to flee, caught up in the traffic jams that formed on the hill’s narrow, winding streets. More than 150 people were injured and at least 3,000 homes were destroyed, leaving some 5,000 people homeless.

Although the exact cause has not been established, a suspicious fire had broken out the previous day in the scrub brush of nearby Wildcat Canyon. Firefighters said they had successfully extinguished the 5-acre blaze. Whether embers from that fire were reignited by dry winds is unclear. Certainly the velocity of the Diablo winds, coupled with temperatures well into the 90s — coming in the wake of five successive years of drought — ensured the rapid spread of the firestorm the next day. At one point a home was igniting every 11 seconds and 790 structures were consumed within a single hour. Efforts to contain the blaze were severely hampered by the steep terrain and twisting, switchback roads. There was a lack of water as the fire took out the electricity needed for the pumps. The emergency services also had difficulty communicating: channels were overloaded and the hills interfered with radio signals.

Frances and Gary lost everything in the fire, including their cat whom they searched for tirelessly in the days after the fire. Brad, their roommate, had left the house that morning with his surfboard, unaware of the impending catastrophe. As he left, the neighbours were packing their car to leave. Unlike Brad, they had heard the advice to evacuate.

Recovering from such a trauma is a slow process. Frances and Gary had only lived in the modern, four-bedroomed house for eight months after moving to the West Coast from New York. Originally from San Francisco, Frances had favoured living in the city but they had both been drawn to the eucalyptus-scented air and stunning views offered by the East Bay hills. While the house itself didn’t hold many memories, some of its contents inevitably did. Frances says one of the most difficult things to lose was a box of letters and photographs relating to her father who died when she was 16.

The couple were allowed to go to the site of their home three days after the fire. “Everything was grey as there was ash everywhere as well as huge clumps of metal, and lone chimney stacks. There was an acrid, chemical smell,” she says. The fact that so many people were affected helped. “Recovery is very different if you suffer and grieve as a community,” says Frances. She remembers how generous people were and the support groups that sprang up to deal with practical as well as emotional issues. Many of the local merchants offered discounts to fire victims.

But Frances found it hard to begin replacing things. And she didn’t feel like nesting for the baby on the way. “I didn’t prepare anything until a week or so before Charlotte was born,” she says. “I think in that way the shock was subconscious.”

Like most of those who lost their homes, the couple decided to rebuild. There was a financial incentive, but also a refusal to be defeated. “Gary was angry and, although we had discussed living elsewhere, this made him dig his heels in.” The couple had kept their insurance up to date and were able to claim substantial compensation for both the house and its contents. The quality of the new house they designed and built reflects this. Others were less fortunate, and spent years wading through red tape and even taking insurance companies to court to make claims.

The total value of the properties lost that day is estimated to exceed $2 billion. One year to the day after the fire, Frances and Gary broke ground to build their new home. Following revised building codes they have built the house from stucco, there are sprinklers in every room and fire-resistant planting in the garden. They keep negatives of treasured photographs in a bank vault and a back-up of the manuscript of the book Frances is writing is filed online. But the anxiety never really goes away. “Every time the weather turns hot and windy, I load up the car and get ready to leave,” she says.

Puritan Pleasure: Palazzo Ducale, Venice [FT Magazine]



Financial Times, January 8th, 2005



Venice has many magical qualities, but its tendency to draw crowds isn’t one of them. So it is smugly satisfying to discover a way to avoid them entirely in the Palazzo Ducale (the Doge’s Palace), one of La Serenissima’s most popular attractions.

The “Secret Itinerary” is a private tour through parts of the palace that are not usually open to the public. A phone call at least a week in advance secures you a very special 90 minutes.

Having ascended the ornate, gilded steps of Scala d’Oro with the heaving masses, our guide unlocked a small, plain door and we left the hordes behind, slipping into a warren of tiny, wood-panelled offices where the real, day-to-day business of this, the nerve centre of the Venetian empire, took place.

The warren of tiny rooms is little changed from when the city’s clerks worked there in the 1790s – there are simple candle-sconces on the walls and scrubbed desks for the mountains of paperwork.

Up some narrow steps we came to the elegant chancellery, lined with map cupboards for storing treaties. Up again are the piombi, prison cells reserved for the more notorious criminals (petty offenders were kept on the ground floor). In his memoirs, Casanova tells of how he made a daring escape from here – stopping for a morning espresso at Caffe Florian before making his getaway by gondola.

We entered the torture chamber, where a single, ominous rope hangs from the rafters. Here, suspects were suspended by their wrists and questioned by the three “judges of the night”. But, the best is saved for last: right up under the eaves is the underside of a huge “floating” ceiling belonging to one of the state rooms below. Built by the Arsenale’s shipwrights in 1577, its muddle of criss-crossing beams is a formidable feat of engineering.

Emerging back into the public rooms we were invited to continue visiting the palace independently. We resisted. Somehow it would have felt too ordinary.

The “Secret Itinerary” costs Euros 315 per person, 00 39 041 520 9070.

Puritan Pleasure: Open houses [FT Magazine]



Financial Times, April 1st, 2006



If, like me, you relish taking post-prandial strolls around your neighbourhood purely so you can peer into people’s front rooms before they have shut the curtains for the night, the appeal of one of the US’s most popular Sunday pastimes will be obvious.

Open-housing is about more than keeping an eye on the property market. It provides a sheen of respectability to what is little more than glorified snooping. It’s also free and can be enjoyed by all ages.

It works this way: over coffee on Sunday morning you peruse the Open Houses pages of your local paper and map out your day. All the houses for sale are open from 2pm to 4.30pm, so other plans need to be scheduled accordingly. Many of the listings include a line- drawing of the home in question – vulgar photography is reserved for houses of the lower order.

There are different types of pleasures to be had from prying into other people’s homes. There is the bittersweet gratification of finding that the multimillion-dollar, architect-designed show stopper with its wrap-around deck and outdoor hot tub is the stuff of your dreams; and there is smug superiority, as in “I can’t believe someone with such obvious wealth has such appalling taste.”

In the part of California where I indulge this hobby the architectural styles range from modernist hill houses with great views of San Francisco, to delightful, shingled craftsman homes with their dark panelling and built-in cabinetry.

There is also fun to be had in discovering what the professional “home stagers” have been up to. Their presence is obvious in any house in the $2m-plus bracket in the Bay Area – spot the potted succulents on the porch, the tray of wine and (plastic) nibbles and the covetable linen on the plumped-up beds – I have even seen a guitarist strumming in a rose garden as the hordes poke their collective nose into the guest cottage.

What can I say? Legitimate voyeurism: it beats snoozing with the Sunday supplements.

California Dreams: Norah and Norman Stone [Financial Times]



Financial Times, May 27th 2006


Six of the eight bedrooms in Norah and Norman Stone’s mansion have been given over to art. But the San Francisco power couple assure me that the encroaching collection has required no real sacrifice on their part and no significant alterations to their beautiful Arthur Brown-designed house.

“I was actually pleased to have the housekeeper move out and be replaced by Jason Rhoades and Matthew Barney,” says Norah, referring to the top floor where they now keep several pieces by the two artists.

A tour of Stones’ home, which has views from Presidio Heights over the city and the bay, reveals just how inventive they have been when it comes to sharing their living space with their art. What is particularly striking is the juxtaposition of the many uncompromisingly modern pieces with the more traditional, elegant surroundings, originally created by the renowned interior designer Frances Elkins.

In the entrance hall, against a background of sumptuous antique Chinese wallpaper, hangs “La Poupée” (1938) by Hans Bellmer. One of Joseph Beuys’ ”vitrine” works, housed in a rectangular glass case on legs, stands nearby. “You don’t see many of those in people’s hallways,” quips Norman. Tucked into a closet – the Stones admit they struggled to find the right place – is a sound piece by Stephen Vitiello that includes recordings made in the World Trade Center in 1999.

In the relatively small, formal dining room two giant wall pieces by Jeff Koons, “Balloon Dog” (1996) and “Cheeky” (2000) face off against a large Andy Warhol self-portrait, “Fright Wig” (1986). Strolling through the living room you spot a familiar image of the Mona Lisa complete with moustache and goatee – Marcel Duchamp’s “L.H.O.O.Q.” (1940).

The Stones like to contextualise their collection by including pieces by a previous generation of avant-garde artists that influenced many of the younger names in their collection. Thus, on an upper floor, Robert Gober’s “Pair of Urinals” (1987) echoes Duchamp’s succès de scandale, “Fontaine” (1917).

Norman, who is president of his family’s foundation, explains the rationale behind their acquisitions: “The wisest thing to do is to know your end-game,” he says. “We collect museum-quality pieces so that in the end they will go to museums.” (The Stones have ties to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney and the Tate Modern, among others.) “Our mission is to act differently.”

Some of the work is highly provocative. But, says Norman, who is a psychologist by training, and who works regularly as a psychological counsellor with young people at a local community centre: “Our art addresses upsetting issues and I don’t feel good about them but they exist and should not be shirked.”

As one explores the house, it’s clear that every possible nook and cranny has been exploited as space to show art. In a labyrinthine series of rooms in the basement one happens across Keith Tyson’s 2002 Turner Prize-winning “Bubble Chambers”. Also below ground-level, a long whitewashed room acts as a minimalist gallery with works by Donald Judd and Richard Serra as well as one of Andy Warhol’s Rorschach paintings.

Even the garage, which houses his ‘n’ hers Porsches, has been put to use. When Norman decided to buy “Electric Earth”, a video piece by Doug Aitken, he realised the five screens and 1,200 ft of space it required would pose something of a challenge. The solution was a linear version of the piece, created by the artist, with just one screen which drops down for viewing once the cars have been relegated to the street.

Maintenance issues inevitably arise with such an eclectic collection. A Jeff Koons work, “Two Ball Total Equilibrium Tank” (1985), which consists of two Spalding basketballs in a tank of distilled water, requires a regular water change. Unfortunately the person who had been performing this task for the Stones – and was familiar with the 13-page manual explaining the necessary procedure – recently left town. Norman shrugs this off as a minor inconvenience. “We’ll find someone else,” he says.

In any case, the couple have bigger issues on their mind. At their Napa Valley estate, where they also manage a vineyard, they are drilling below ground into the limestone to create a 5,000 sq ft cave of exhibition space. Also in the planning stages is a James Turrell skyspace which is being built into the swimming pool. Norah says when it is completed LED lighting will allow you to change the colour of the sky.

The Stones insist they always find solutions when they want to install a new work of art. Still, the “art cave” is perhaps an admission that their city home has finally reached full capacity.