Kokotxa – San Sebastian

In a rare quiet corner of San Sebastian’s Old Town, away from the crowded pintxo bars and below the towering Mount Urgull sits Kokotxa. Two months before my trip to San Sebastian I decided it would be the perfect opportunity to visit my first Michelin-starred restaurant. San Sebastian, after all, boasts the second-highest Michelin stars per capita, behind only Kyoto in Japan. It is the epicentre of la nueva cocina, Spain’s answer to France’s nouvelle cuisine, blending traditional food and produce with modern and experimental techniques.

Kokotxa, Basque for cheeks, the tastiest part of any animal, is a small, unpretentious restaurant. Decorations are modest, dress code is casual; there is barely room for 30 people. A group of boisterous Australian and American cruisers occupied over half the dining room. The restaurant was fully booked two months in advance, and could only accommodate us at 9.30pm, normal by Spanish standards of course.

As expected of restaurants of this sort, the staff were friendly and knowledgeable on the day’s menu, options including a six-course “market menu” and nine-course “tasting menu” alongside the à la carte menu. We opted for the former, created from local, seasonal produce. The sommelier recommended an excellent Rioja at a very reasonable €5 a glass.

With so many eateries lining the Old Town, serving an implausibly wide array of pintxos and some excellent steak and seafood on the cheap, the chefs had their work cut out to impress me. After lunching at Bar Nestor, which serves only five items, all staunchly simple, steak, peppers, tortillas, for example, dinner was the polar opposite. Techniques brought to the masses only on Masterchef were abundant, with ample foam, froth and edible earth to please even John Torode. The food, immaculately presented, was almost all excellent.

First came the appetiser, a brownish, beige sauce accompanied by breadsticks. My unsophisticated pallet detected a creamy, cheesy concoction; it turned out to be mayonnaise and mustard, but it whet our appetites sufficiently. The starter, a tomato, red pepper and feta gazpacho was refreshing, mixing the sweetness of the peppers with the tomatoes’ acidity and the tang of the feta perfectly. A dainty, slightly lost, shrimp blini sat beside the soup.

Mains were focused on seasonal and fresh seafood. The highlight came first, an asparagus, scallop, and Jerusalem artichoke salad on an edible earth of chocolate, squid ink, cheese and almonds. It resembled art rather than food, and wouldn’t look out of place on show at the Guggenheim in nearby Bilbao.

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Asparagus, scallop and Jerusalem artichoke salad

Two fish dishes were expertly executed. Cod kokotxa, the restaurant living up to its name, were gelatinous, melt-in-the-mouth pieces of goodness. The waiter insisted kokotxa comes from under the chin, though Google maintains it’s the cheek. Either way, it was a delight, presented on parsley sauce with a mousse made from the cooking juices and olive oil.

Hake in a dashi of dried tuna, seaweed and shiitake was equally tender and tasty, despite combining some of my least favourite flavours, and it was accompanied by a crab and saffron rigatoni.

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Grilled hake Japanese style
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Dessert

 

The only disappointment was a prawn on a bed of beetroot rice and seaweed, which we greedily and somewhat unnecessarily added to the market menu for a seventh course. The prawn wasn’t sweet and tender like others I’ve had, and the beetroot rice lacked flavour. But slow-cooked Iberian pork with a macadamia mousse restored my faith.

The dessert, a sponge cake with things that sound gross, cheese mousse and goat yoghurt ice cream for example, was surprisingly good.

At €75 a head, including drinks, Kokotxa isn’t cheap, but neither is it outrageous compared with some more pretentious rivals. It’s earned its Michelin star for a reason. Local, fresh produce is combined with modern techniques to create intriguing and inspired dishes. It isn’t afraid to look outside Spain for influences, but stays true to its roots.

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The best Middle-Eastern food in London

London has long been a centre of immigration, from Irish, Jewish and Chinese immigrants in the nineteenth century to Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi and West Indian arrivals after the fall of the Empire. Contrary to popular jibes against ‘British’ food, the successive waves of immigration have all left indelible marks on the island’s cuisine. Salt beef, fish and chips, chicken tikka masala and jerk chicken are all now as British as tea, which of course, came from China. In short, true British food is a wonderful amalgamation of a variety of cultures and tastes; it tells the history of immigration and empire on a plate.

Visitors to London readily head to Indian restaurants, or fish and chips shops, for a traditional local meal. Yet there is one cuisine that is often overlooked, a cuisine that is increasingly popular among Londoners themselves. Middle Eastern and North African food, which, of course, is not one cuisine but a rich and diverse set of food cultures, has emerged as a favourite in Britain’s capital. With the help of famous chefs like Yotam Ottolenghi, the Maghreb and Arabian Peninsula, in terms of culinary influence, are in vogue. Thankfully, a dodgy kebab at 3am or a tub of supermarket hummus no longer constitutes our relationship with Middle Eastern food.

And to prove the point, here are three of London’s finest restaurants from the region. The restaurants demonstrate a variety of influences, from Turkey to North Africa via Lebanon, and offer a range of prices.

Gokyuzu

Harringay, in North London, and its main thoroughfare of Green Lanes, is the epicentre of London’s Turkish and Kurdish communities. Along the scruffy, unpretentious road, fried chicken and pizza places fight for commerce with bookmakers and hipster burger joints. But the Lanes’ main pull is the stunning array of Turkish food on offer, with bakeries offering mouthwatering borek and patisseries serving the finest baklava.

Though there are many excellent restaurants, the best, and the busiest, is Gokyuzu. Just a few minutes walk from Harringay Green Lanes overground station, Gokyuzu is worth the slightly awkward trip from central London. At nights and weekends, it is perpetually busy, and queueing is likely for those who haven’t booked. Once in, you’ll be greeted by an impressive range of Turkish classics, such as the tangy, lemony Kisir and the best lahmacun, Turkish pizzas topped with minced lamb.

Despite a potentially confusing selection of mains, confusing in that you will want them all, there is only one serious option for those in the know. Available in several sizes, depending on the party, the platter involves a combination of the finest, juiciest grilled meats, such as chicken wings, lamb ribs and chicken and lamb shish. The hefty portion of meat sits atop a bed of rice and bulgur wheat, reliably soaking up the juices. On the side, warm Turkish bread and a fresh salad offer perfect accompaniment.

Quite reasonably, for the quality of food and size of portion, it is difficult to spend more than £20 per person. For Turkish food, this should be the first stop in London for all food lovers.

Beirut Express

Edgware Road, which heads north from Marble Arch in central London, is home to a significant Middle Eastern community, and is often dubbed Little Arabia. Just a stone’s throw from Oxford Street, it boasts, in particular, several excellent Lebanese restaurants, notably several branches of the excellent Maroush chain.

Maroush cater to a diverse audience, with smart and casual outposts along Edgware Road. For exquisite, cheap shawarma in an unassuming, friendly environment, look no further than Beirut Express. Open until 2am, Beirut Express is perfect for a late-night meal, after a night out in Soho or the West End. If kebab shops were this good in the rest of London, they wouldn’t have such a poor reputation. By all means, the kebabs at Beirut Express are suitable for the sober.

The cold and hot mezza are all superb, especially the sautéed chicken liver and the kibbeh, deep fried lamb meatballs filled with cracked wheat and herbs, and the Lebanese pastries are second to none. Likewise, the mains are fantastic, though slightly pricey.

But Beirut Express is not the place to eat a full meal, there are several top choices nearby. Come for the shawarma wraps, a cheap option at roughly £5, and bask in the glory of a juicy, greasy kebab filled with the finest marinated lamb and the freshest herbs and salad.

London is full of terrible kebab shops offering bland or overly-salted meat presented on top of a soggy pitta with raw onion and commercial garlic sauce. Visit Beirut Express, if only for proof that the kebab, when made right, is the mother of all fast foods.

Moro

Situated in the now trendy Exmouth Market in Farringdon, Moro is the more sophisticated of the three. Opened around 20 years ago, it predates the current wave of smart casual, reasonably-priced, North African-inspired restaurants in London. It remains one of the best.

Moro, whose name comes from the Spanish for Moor, isn’t strictly Middle Eastern. It is a modern, fusion-type restaurant that mixes Moroccan and Spanish influences to perfection. It is the type of place that serves freshly-baked sourdough alongside its starters, and that is a very good thing.

The menu changes regularly, but is likely to feature staples of North African cooking, such as harissa, za’atar, dates, apricots and pomegranates, mixed with traditional Spanish ingredients like chorizo, morcilla and jamón ibérico. It works to perfection. On my last visit, the highlight was grilled skate with paprika and farika, a form of roasted wheat common across North Africa.

Moro is a special occasion sort of place. The customers are unfailingly cool and well-heeled, sometimes too much for their own good. It isn’t cheap, with mains upwards of £20 each, but the food is consistently superb; seasoning and herbs are subtle, hints of the Maghreb beautifully presented and delightful to eat. Next door, a sister restaurant, Morito, offers tapas and small plates on similar lines. If you can, however, stick to Moro, and you will experience fine, modern Euro-North African cuisine and immediately plan, and save, for your next visit.

Lebanese food in São Paulo

São Paulo is one of the Americas’ most multicultural cities. Over 50% of its population claims some Italian descent, while many others have German, Portuguese, Eastern European, Jewish, Japanese or African ancestry. All these groups have left indelible marks on the city’s culture, particularly gastronomically. Going out for pizza or sushi, for example, are extremely popular activities, and both are now considered native Paulista fare.

Aside from Italian and Japanese, there is one group that has influenced São Paulo’s, and indeed Brazil’s, cuisine more than most. Perhaps surprising to some non-Brazilians, Arabic food is an elemental feature of the Brazilian gastronomic experience. While the north of Brazil has a longstanding link to Arabic food in the form of Acarajé, deep-fried balls made of ground beans, brought by West African slaves, and not dissimilar to falafels, the more recent immigration of hundreds of thousands of Lebanese and Syrians to the southern states popularised several Middle Eastern classics.

Beginning in the late-nineteenth century, Levantine emigration, mostly Christians escaping the Ottoman Empire, brought many Arabs to Brazil. Subsequently, textiles and clothing shops and factories became an important route to money and assimilation. Today, it is estimated that between 7-10 million Brazilians are of Lebanese descent, with around 4 million hailing in some form from Syria. Brazilian Arabs are a remarkably integrated group, with countless politicians (São Paulo has had three Arab mayors since 1993, and the current president, Michel Temer, is of Lebanese extract), and public figures.

Food, however, is the greatest symbol of Arab integration. Kibe, deep-fried balls of bulgur wheat, lamb or beef and spices are extremely popular, available at any snack counter across the country. Esfiha, small pastries topped with mince or cheese, similar to Turkish lahmacun, are equally ubiquitous, and there is even a fast food chain, Habib’s, dedicated to the delightful dish.

In order to fully experience the fantastic Lebanese (and Syrian) cuisine available in São Paulo, however, it is necessary to visit one of the many popular restaurants across the city. The perfect place to start is at Halim, a traditional joint established in 1973 by Lebanese immigrants and still run by the same family.

Situated just off the southern end of Avenida Paulista, one of the city’s main thoroughfares, Halim is cheap and perpetually busy. Past the entrance, a large counter is filled with Lebanese sweets such as baklava and takeaway savoury classics, while Levantine deli products adorn the opposite wall. Behind the casual entrance, the restaurant fans out into a large dining room and, on our latest visit, at 2pm on a week day, we had to wait 10 minutes for a table.

It is definitely worth the queue and the noisy ambience. The best option is the individual meze selection (an oxymoron?), where the customer can choose six from a variety of Lebanese classics. After an excellent meat esfiha to start, which should always be eaten with a squeeze of lime, at least when in Brazil, our meze plates arrived. I opted for aubergine stuffed with rice and mince in tomato sauce, tabbouleh, hummus, baba ganoush, kofte and Moroccan rice with almonds, chicken, mince and herbs. All the dishes were well executed, the aubergines succulent, the hummus perfectly seasoned, and the baba ganoush smokey and creamy. Only the kofte was slightly disappointing, a bit too dry for my liking. A huge basket of flatbreads was provided, perfect not only for mopping up the various sauces, but to use as cutlery.

The popularity and ubiquity of Arabic food in Brazil is little known outside the country. Nevertheless, future visitors should seek it out, particularly when in São Paulo, a city that offers a breadth and quality of Middle Eastern cuisine to match any big city, and Halim provides an excellent introduction.

The best food in Korea

By Ben Preston, co-founder of ViaHero.com

Korean food has always been one of my favourite types of food, albeit one I barely understood. Then, a short while ago, I had the chance to travel to Seoul for a close friend’s wedding. During that trip, I was able to get a week-long crash course in Korean food from my friends (who also happen to be local foodies and overall great guys). Here are some of my favourites:

5 – Kimchi Dumplings

Namdaemun Market is a sprawling street market in Seoul selling second-hand goods, clothing, and most importantly, tasty food. While some of the sit-down options here seemed a bit too tourist focused (I would avoid a place called ‘Noodle Alley’ at all costs!), the gems of Namdaemun are on the street. Using my general rule of eat-where-lots-of-locals-eat, I stumbled across a small stand selling freshly steamed kimchi dumplings. Warm and inviting, this was the best street food that I ate and was perfect on a cold day.

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Kimchi dumplings

4 – Banchan

Banchan are the nearly endless variety of tasty small plates of food that come with almost every meal. Kimchi was almost always present (yum!) which always added a spicy and complex complement to any meal. My favourite thing about banchan is that they are served right when you arrive to eat and refills are endless. I am pretty sure I could live in Korea for five years and still not sample every type of Banchan.

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Banchan

  

3 – Kimbap

I’ve always associated maki (rice and fillings, wrapped in seaweed and then sliced) to be a classic Japanese dish. Then I came to Korea, and found out about Kimbap: the Korean cousin of maki filled with uniquely local ingredients like kimchi, daikon radish, and pork. Kimbap is cheap, filling, available everywhere, and super tasty. Pork sushi?  Yes please.

  

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Kimbap

4 – ChiMac

Now we are getting to the big leagues. ChiMac, derived from the Korean words for Chicken and Beer, is a Seoul classic. One of the coolest parts of eating ChiMac in Korea was trying the different styles. The first place I tried was in the super trendy Gangam district and was filled with young business people out from work and what looked like lots of first dates. The chicken was perfectly crispy and crunchy, topped with herbs and sauce, and served with a crisp ice cold beer.

But my favourite of numerous ChiMacs was actually from an old-school ChiMac joint that I could best describe as a Korean pub. Definitely not a place known for the ambiance but loved for the chicken, the ChiMac came both plain and in a sweet-spicy sauce. The meat was tender, so juicy and flavourful, and the coating was crispy and unlike any fried chicken I have ever had. It was simply amazing. This was one of the dishes that I would travel back to Korea just to eat again.

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ChiMac

1 – Korean BBQ

Choosing between ChiMac and Korean BBQ was nearly impossible – both were so different and amazing in their own way. However, the sheer diversity of Korean BBQ in Seoul put BBQ on top.

We started with some classic beef BBQ: self-cooked tasty morsels wrapped in lettuce and loaded with garlic, kimchi, and Ssamjang sauce, yum! 

Then we moved on to what is surely one of my favourite meals ever: Pork-centric Korean BBQ. Slabs of every kind and cut of pork cooked by a pro right at our table. The best was the sliver of pork belly, super tender and flavourful, wrapped up in a lettuce leaf. Another must-try food here was a variation on Kimchi I had never seen before: cooked below the pork on a slanted grill, pork juice flowed down and cooked the kimchi. This pork-juice-cooked-Kimchi was oddly reminiscent of Polish stuffed cabbage, and was one of the most unique I ate on the entire trip.

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Korean Barbecue

But perhaps the meal that put Korean BBQ over the edge for me was a fusion of Korean + Mexican food that was unexpected and amazing. The chicken was marinated in a blend of Korean and Mexican spices, and then grilled at the table along with tortillas. Instead of classic lettuce wraps, we assembled little packets of grilled chicken, Korean Nacho cheese, mint leaves, and onions for perfect bitesized pieces of happiness.  The restaurant even served a boiling plate of cheese with tortillas chips inside – what I can only describe as Korean Nachos.   

The food in Korea was diverse and incredible. My only advice would be to try to find a local to take you around, or make friends quickly, to get the true Seoul experience.

Bodean’s and the hipsterisation of Muswell Hill

Muswell Hill, at least the Muswell Hill I’ve known since the mid-1990s, has always been a typical middle-class London neighbourhood. Parents were lawyers, journalists and teachers, did yoga and pilates, bought muddy vegetables, and read the Guardian. It was a relatively idyllic place to grow up, with four or five parks within walking distance and safety to play on the streets.

The Broadway feels much like a traditional English village centre, enhanced by its lack of tube station. More importantly, it houses several long-established, independent shops, such as W. Martyn, a quaint coffee and tea specialist opened in 1897, or Broadway Pet Stores, whose friendly staff have remained unchanged over the past two decades. These independent outlets make the area feel more like a community than many London neighbourhoods.

Food-wise, however, Muswell Hill has lagged behind its more ethnically-diverse neighbouring areas, particularly Crouch End, Stroud Green and Hornsey. As a boy, it was always exciting venturing south and east with my parents, to authentic Turkish food in Green Lanes, to trendier outposts in Crouch End, or to the ethnic melange of Stroud Green.

Not that there wasn’t anything good in Muswell Hill. La Porchetta, which proudly proclaims its independence from London’s other Porchettas, was a childhood staple; Kilim offered reliable Turkish fare; Toff’s was always proudly, if somewhat dubiously, affirmed as one of Britain’s best fish and chips shops; and Ask and Pizza Express were always there, for those times when your parents wanted pizza but found the superior La Porchetta too noisy. In short, there was always good food, it was just simpler, less adventurous, and somehow felt less authentic than in other areas.

In the past couple of years, however, the hipsterisation of London’s food culture (street food, small plates, cheap, better-quality fast food, and ‘artisanal’ produce), has belatedly ensconced itself into Muswell Hill’s leafy streets. The pioneers, bizarrely, were characterless chains like Carluccio’s and Côte, corporate behemoths serving blandly generic Italian and French fare. Fortunately, they blazed the trail, putting the area on the map for some more interesting restaurants, delis and cafés to emerge.

In July 2014, Alexandra Palace hosted its first street food and craft beer festival. The fair brings together some of London’s finest food trucks, craft beer stalls and alternative bands. This welcome addition to the local scene arrived late (Street Feast first opened its doors to hungry East London hipsters in 2012), but better late than never.

Bodean’s opened it’s newest branch in Muswell Hill in late 2016. In 2002 Bodean’s was a trailblazer, bringing the now-ubiquitous concept of American-style ribs, wings, and pulled pork to Londoners. As ever, we Muswell Hillbillies got our share late, long after Soho and East London were crawling with American diners, some good, some terrible. While not perfect, Bodean’s is a welcome, and self-consciously hipper, upgrade on Giraffe.

The Broadway’s culinary range has diversified, and to a large extent improved, in the past two years. The extortion of Planet Organic notwithstanding, Muswell Hill has received the once-cool but still-good Franco Manca, a trendy salt-beef selling café (salt beef is always a good thing), and even purveyors of fine sourdough bread and Monmouth coffee at Flesh & Flour. There will always be a place in my heart for traditional cafés like Feast on the Hill, but I am thankful for the superior coffee at Flesh & Flour, and obviously for their artisanal lard.

The belated hipsterisation of Muswell Hill’s food scene, the term in itself an oxymoron, is not completely benign. The snootiness of Muddy Boots, a new deli that looks down on those unable to afford organic meat, is uncalled for. A recent sign outside the shop stated that “most people are totally happy to buy their meat from supermarkets. For everyone else, we’re here”; most people would buy their chops if they could afford them.

Furthermore, trendier stores and eateries threaten the existence of many of the area’s long-established and popular locations. The fishmonger Walter Purkis & Sons came to the area in 1987, and still commands lengthy queues every Saturday morning. The recent imposition of a more modern fishmonger on Colney Hatch Lane may threaten their existence. Sable D’or has recently closed for refurbishment. The café is certainly modernising to compete with the influx of coffee sellers.

Until recently, Muswell Hill was, if not quite a gastronomic Siberia, somewhat limited food-wise. Recent years have seen vast improvements, and providing that traditional outlets are not pushed out, that can only be a good thing.