Thursday, 19 May 2011

tapas me up!

I've always been a fan of little plates; tasty tidbits over a hefty dish. There's something about all the flavours and textures mingling together but still remaining very separate that makes dinner a more interesting (and often lengthier) experience. My preference has always been Greek or Lebanese mezze - delicious squid, chicken, lamb morsels, chickpeas, spinach and feta filo parcels, grilled halloumi cheese, falafel with sides of homemade houmous, tzatziki, couscous salad and olivieh. I discovered this beauty when I was seventeen and working in a middle Eastern restaurant. An ancient Persian dip/potato salady thing made with chicken, garlic, mayonnaise, potato, egg and olive oil. Sounds a bit dodgy, but honestly the most tasty, moreish thing and freshly made daily by the owner's wife, I used to stuff quantities down with grilled pitta - being a slip of thing at the time, I could afford to make that my started and follow up with freebie butterflied prawns or swordfish. A jammy job indeed.

Tapas has always been something I have avoided in favour of mezze - because I adore Greek food so much, I will always go for the Hellenic option. However a recent trip to Nerja, Spain with my good friend Emily, meant tapas were due to be the order of the day - and I am now a tapas fan!
According to legend (and Wikipedia) the tapas tradition began when King Alfonso X of Castile recovered from an illness by drinking wine with small dishes between meals. After regaining his health, the king ordered that taverns would not be allowed to serve wine to customers unless it was accompanied by a small snack or "tapa." Most Spanish bars/restaurants charge for tapas, meaning people tend to order a whole selection for a sitdown meal, which isn't really in the tapas spirit. The serving of tapas is designed to encourage conversation - people aren't so focused upon eating an entire meal that is set before them, and it's much easier to move around with your one little plate and drink, and chat to people.
However luckily for us, in certain areas of southern Spain (including Nerja!), free tapa is still offered with a drink at the bar. Wahoo! We completed a few tapas tours of the town, bar hopping and ordering a drink in each. House specials such as beer, wine, or our fave tinto de verano (lovely, refreshing drink of red wine & lemonade) are just €1.60 each, with which you pick a complimentary tapa. Then it's munch, slurp, chat and onto the next. It was a fantastic way to not only see the city, but meet different people, try a variety of tapas and get nicely tipsy (and full) on the cheap. We put in 10 euros at the start of the night and that lasted us across 6 tapas bars - under a tenner for all your food and drink! Unheard of. It's worth remembering if you're planning on visiting Spain, as if I hadn't known and was offered tapas with my drink I would have turned it down, not realising it was free! It's also a bit intimidating for tourists I imagine, as you have to sit at the bar to qualify (and most of us would gravitate to a table would we not?). Also the tapas are all under a covered glass window on top of the bar (usually around 10-12 different options), unlabelled - so if you are unfamiliar with tapas, or don't have a translator, you might be unable to identify the offering. Like all restaurants, there is bound to be a variety in quality - some establishments freshly cook the tapas, some microwave it etc. Get locals to recommend you the best tapas bars (although they will be biased!)
 However it's worth just going for it as everything I tasted was delish!

Some of my personal favourites were albóndigas (meatballs in a sauce), paella, croquetas (chicken, potatoey croquettes), bacalao (very thinly sliced and fried pieces of salty garlicky cod), calamari, the Spanish version of eggs & bacon (fried quail egg on bread with pancetta), freshwater prawns, chorizo, ensaladilla rusa (literally means little Russian salad and is made with mixed boiled vegetables with tuna, olives and mayonnaise) and tortilla.
The tapas are often served with crisps, olives, bits of crusty bread, cheesy mash (in one instance!) or alioli for dipping, making it amazing value for money. Next week, The Grub Club, are off to Galicia, Westbourne Park to check out the London tapas scene… watch this space for a review!

In other news, last night I made a chicken and chorizo paella. I used arborio rice, along with mushrooms, peas, pepper, herbs, onion and garlic along with a garnish of flat leaf parsley. It turned out really well, if a bit soggy, and the flavour of the chorizo along with saffron not only gave the paella a beaut golden yellow colour but a delicious meaty, rich taste. You could add squid, prawns, lobster or mussels happily to this recipe, and serve alongside salad with a bit of crusty bread for sauce mopping…. Delicioso!

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

totally tayyab's

Tayyab's. A Whitechapel curry house institution, opened in 1974 and still going strong with a loyal and dedicated fan base. In my quest for a decent Indian in London, and buoyed by nothing but rave reviews for this place, it was only fitting that The Grub Club decided on Tayyab's as the spot for our second meeting! Arriving around 7pm on a Wednesday night we beat the infamous queues and were immediately seated. Decor was simple but pleasant, kitchen table not upmarket restaurant. We were immediately given a plate of fresh salad and dips, with fresh poppadums (Charly said they were the best she'd ever tasted!), including an amazing homemade mango chutney. Stainless steel water jugs were on the tables along with those classic Seventies water glasses - we immediately commented on how our mothers both had the same versions at home! The menu was perfect, with a decent amount of starters, meat and veggie dishes and extremely reasonably priced to boot.

We opted for a selection of starters including tasty meat and veg samosas, gorgeous and super spicy lamb seekh and shami kebabs and paneer. We then went for chicken karahi and a baby aubergine dahl, both very fresh and not swimming in sauce. The chicken had a lovely sweet, almost honeyed edge to it and the dahl wasn't sloppy, with good sized pieces of lentil and veg. Pilau rice and an obscene amount of Indian breads completed the dinner. I always get a bit overexcited at the prospect of decent naans, rotis or parathas. That puffy, soft, buttery goodness brings out the fat kid in me and I want it all, all I tell you! Needless to say bread stuffs you and it's a crime to the deliciousness of the food to do so. To be honest if you're having bread, I would recommend getting a single dish of rice for 3/4 people. We left our second one untouched, along with two of the breads (it kills me to say). Go for one bread item per person - they are large and unlike the thin, flimsy style rotis or chapatis in most Indian restaurants or takeaways, they are very thick and puffy, almost like naan breads.



Needless to say, we were absolutely overstuffed at the end of the meal (Charly went up a bra size and I nearly fell over twice on the way home). Couldn't even fit in a kulfi or gulab, tempting as they did look. There is also a big Indian sweets counter in Tayyab's, stocking brightly coloured barfi and my alltime favourite, those sticky syrupy sweet jalebi. Packed full of condensed milk, sugar syrup, ghee and all sorts of highly calorific business, there's still no denying their deliciousness enjoyed alongside a nice cup of tea. They also keep for ages so you can slowly work your way through a box of goodies and make yourself feel slightly less guilty! The bill for everything was a steal at £38.95 for three people, a real rarity in these tough times to get such a good quality, fast and cheap meal in London.

Overall TGC had a highly enjoyable Tayyab's experience with a vote of a very solid 8.75/10. Marks were deducted for slightly too much grease left in the bottom of our dishes, although there was no telltale oil slick on the tops of the dishes when they arrived (as you see in many curry houses) which was a good sign. The poppadums are also on the bill, although served as if free, which is also a pet hate of mine. However these are all minor tings in the scheme of it all and come on, we have to give them some room for improvement...!

It's BYOB so don't forget the booze, and try it out on a weekday evening to avoid the queues. On the way home, we saw the Gherkin rising up into the sky on our left as an old Indian guy played jaunty music on his flute on our right - and were reminded of the melting pot that London really is...