My Sarona: Tel-Aviv inspired eatery hits the spot

I haven’t written one of these in a while. A job (writing) and life (a girlfriend) have got in the way. Since my last piece, on the wonderful Franceschetta58, Massimo Bottura’s affordable restaurant in Modena, I haven’t had the inclination to write much in my spare time, considering I’m sat at a computer doing just that all day.

But, while I get to do what I love for work – and, praise the lord, it involves food much of the time – I miss reviewing restaurants. Unfortunately, at a national newspaper, small fry like me don’t get to do that; it’s left to the big dogs.

So I’m back writing about all the weird and wonderful foods in London and, from time to time, beyond.

This week, I got to try out an excellent new restaurant in Clerkenwell: Sarona. Full disclaimer: it was a PR invite and press dinner. This won’t alter my perception, however. If it were shit, I’d probably just not write about it; I’ve had forgettable meals on PR invites, but this wasn’t one of those occasions.

Sarona is perhaps let down a little by its location. While there are excellent restaurants in the area – St John; Foxlow; and a host of good stuff in Exmouth Market (go to Moro ASAP) –  if this were Soho or Shoreditch, I imagine it would’ve been jam-packed on a Tuesday night. Instead, it was about half-full.

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Tomatoes with Palestinian cheese

The restaurant opened last month, piggybacking on London’s insatiable appetite for Middle Eastern food. There’s stiff competition from the likes of Moro, The Palomar, The Good Egg, Berber & Q, the Ottolenghi Empire, The Barbery, etc. etc. etc. The best compliment for Sarona? Its “Modern Middle Eastern Cuisine” more than holds its own alongside those restaurants.

Inspired by the street and market food of Tel Aviv, it feels a little less experimental than some places, but the food was consistently on point. To start, we lapped up most of the sharing plates on offer. I’d recommend going in a big group, as there’s plenty to get through.

All the greatest hits are here: hummus is velvety and rich with tahini. Mopped up with some wonderfully hot and fluffy pitta, we’re off to a good start. Sabanech (spinach, I think) with silky labneh and toasted pine nuts was equally impressive. A tomato salad with crumbly, tart, feta-like Palestinian cheese, doused with balsamic vinegar, shouldn’t be missed.

The real star of the starters, however, was burnt cauliflower on a bed of tahini. My god it was good. I’ve tried making burnt cauliflower so many times at home, and it never works out. Here, it was perfectly textured and seasoned with sumac, and the tahini was creamy and indulgent. I’d go back just for this dish.

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Schnitzel

Mains were also a hit. A burnt aubergine (they’re good at burning here), on a bed of, you guessed it, tahini, and smothered in sharp date syrup (which I once went on a day-long Ottolenghi-fuelled quest around London to find), was essentially a deconstructed baba ganoush, which I’m sure anybody could get on board with.

The schnitzel, as far as I can tell the only nod to Israel’s Ashkenazi population, with everything else focusing on Middle Eastern or north African influences, was good, but didn’t stand out (admittedly against strong competition). What was I expecting? I can make a good schnitzel, it’s not that hard. And while the chicken was tender, and the bashed out breast gigantic, I looked longingly at some enticing plates along our table: prawn kebabs, which half my fellow journos ordered; lamb parcels that looked divine; and a super-moist chicken pargit. 

A glorious last hurrah came in the form of tahini (obviously) ice cream with a generous helping of caramel sauce. I was dubious, but it really worked. 

The only hiccup was the service. New restaurants understandably take time to settle. Like a pair of obdurate Dr Martens, it can take a while to get comfortable. We did, however, wait a long time between courses, and one lady’s main arrived after we’d all finished. Like a good Brit, she kept shtum.

I don’t know how much it cost in total, but the prices are reasonable – starters and sharing plates around £6-9; mains up to £14. Come, bring a group of friends, order all the small plates, and you won’t regret it. You’ll have to stumble home, but it’ll be worth it.

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Franceschetta58 – Modena, Italy

Massimo Bottura is a cool man. Of course, coolness is subjective; he’s my idea of cool. Thick rimmed glasses, grey stubble, short curly hair. More importantly, an indefatigable appetite for life, an authentic passion for his trade, and a commitment to improving the lives of those around him make him stand out. 

I first heard of Bottura watching the Netflix series Chef’s Table, the peerless documentary series showcasing the lives and foods of the world’s greatest chefs. The first episode told the story of the charismatic Italian, whose attempts at modernising Italian cuisine had initially been met with considerable suspicion by food traditionalists, which in Italy means pretty much everyone.

What impressed me most, however, was not his mouthwatering, creative dishes, more artistic than anything I’d seen before. It was his personality and, more than anything, his dedication to making people happy. The episode’s opening scene showed the devastating earthquake that struck northern Italy in 2012, killing 27 and causing untold damage to, among other things, millions of pounds worth of Parmesan cheese. Bottura helped raise awareness and showcased the local, world-famous, cheese in his food, providing the industry with a recovery boost.

Osteria Francescana, the tiny, unpretentious restaurant that in 2016 was named best in the world, is Bottura’s baby. Having worked in New York and Paris, bastions of fine dining, Bottura chose to come home, to Modena, home of Pavarotti and Ferrari, to open his own place. A local museum guide told me how proud she was of Bottura’s decision.

Francescana is set in the heart of Modena, a beautiful town just north of Bologna. While travelling through northern Italy I dreamt of going there. Sadly, unlike Aziz Ansari and Eric Wareheim in the latest series of Netflix’s Master of None, I couldn’t afford the €220 price for a nine-course tasting menu.

Bottura, however, is dedicated to providing quality food to everyone. In the 2016 Olympics he helped turn food waste into meals for Rio’s homeless, a project repeated this year in London. He also has a far more affordable option, just outside Modena’s historic centre. It’s still pricey, and portions are small, but my god is it good.

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Franceschetta58 offers Michelin-star quality food for a fraction of the price. I opted for the lunch menu, a reasonable €25 for three courses. The restaurant is laid back and casual. Daft Punk lyrics adorn the walls while James Brown and Stevie Wonder provided the soundtrack. Attractive French waitresses glide between tables handing out cutlery in old watering cans. It veers perilously close to faux hipster pretension but nevertheless retains an authentic vibe, probably due to Bottura’s personality, or my idea of it at least.

Picking a highlight from the meal is tough; almost everything I ate was top quality. Is it even okay to choose the bread? Seriously, that focaccia. I tried a lot of focaccia during my 10 days in Italy, it was my go-to snack. This was next level: perfectly spongy texture, just the right amount of oil, salt and air. If this was the only thing I was served I still would’ve given Franceschetta a positive review.

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Emilia burger

For starters I opted for one of Bottura’s famous creations, the Emilia burger, named after the local region, Emilia-Romagna, which produces so much of Italy’s world-famous produce (parmesan, Parma ham, balsamic vinegar, bolognese, mortadella, the list goes on). It’s small, and by small I mean small; a slider rather than a burger, a small one at that. The patty is a delightful mixture of pork, beef and parmesan, and the cheese really shines through. It was rare, just how a good burger should be. The salsa verde, mostly parsley, provided a fresh balance to the meat. But the balsamic reduction was slightly overpowering; it was the only (very minor) negative. The burger was still great, and tasted especially good paired with a local red Sangiovese.

Next came the party piece, a perfectly-grilled octopus, each sucker, not an enticing term, housing a pool of olive oil. It was good, but even better when eaten with the fried cauliflower perched alongside it, which tasted almost of crispy seaweed. The accompanying cauliflower and smoked oil mousse was divine.

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Grilled octopus 

I probably wouldn’t have ordered the only dessert on offer, but I’m bloody glad I was cornered into it. It was a sensational coffee and orange cream, with crumbled chocolate biscuits and raspberries. I finished with a coffee and a surprisingly pocket-friendly bill of €35.

Have Italians accepted Bottura’s experimentation with traditional Italian cuisine? It seems so, everyone I spoke to in Modena about him was rightly proud. There were Italians there, but over half the clientele were foreign, mostly French and American. Franceschetta58 is certainly worth a visit. Hell, I basically went to Italy to go there. Of course, we’d all like to be able to visit its big brother, hopefully one day I will. But the more accessible version allows the rest of us to see just why an excitable Italian from Modena has become one of the world’s most celebrated chefs.

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Escocesa Review

I arrived at Escocesa misinformed. My limited research led me to believe I was coming to a Spanish-Scottish fusion restaurant. The very name, meaning ‘Scottish’ in Spanish, seemed to suggest Stoke Newington’s hipsters had run out of ideas. What was I setting myself up for? Battered chorizo? Deep-fried manchego? Morcilla with neeps and tatties?

Fortunately, as we arrived on a Sunday evening it was clear I was wrong. The front room houses an open kitchen, complete with chefs trained at Michelin-starred restaurants and bar stools for casual dining. Behind lies the main dining room which thankfully takes bookings, unlike many similar outlets, such as The Barbary in Covent Garden. The restaurant was full of families celebrating Mother’s Day.

My preconceptions swiftly evaporated; this was no half-baked fusion, but a quality tapas restaurant, with a menu celebrating Spanish classics, from patatas bravas to platters of chorizo and jamón ibérico. Escocesa takes its name from a focus on Scottish ingredients, particularly seafood, which is among the best in the world. Much of it is sent to Spain, but owner Stephen Lironi, helped by an array of Spanish chefs, has brought the good stuff back to the UK.

We started with pádron peppers, a Galician classic of grilled small green peppers doused in olive oil and salt, which were remarkably moreish. A second helping was mistakenly offered to us; we happily accepted the orphaned peppers. Fellow starters came swiftly. Catalan pan con tomate, bruschetta-like bread with a garlicky tomato topping, were the best I’ve had outside Spain. The jamón croquettes were creamier, cheesier and tastier than the average London fare.

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Pan con tomate

The attentive and well-informed staff recommended three sharing plates each, but we ordered more as there were too many enticing items on the menu. The first larger plate to arrive was from the specials board, grilled squid on a bed of tomato and fried chorizo, and was beautifully executed. Grilled prawns in garlic and olive oil came next, and we made a highly satisfying mess of them.

The piece de resistance was a superb squid slider. Rings of lightly-battered squid and a heavy dollop of aioli engulfed by a magnificent squid ink brioche, a nice touch of creativity. The meal was accompanied by some excellent Rioja and a fine bottle of craft beer brewed in Barcelona. We ended our night with homemade ice cream, the highlight of which was the salted caramel.

The only hiccup, apart from a couple of long waits between dishes, was a greasy deep-fried aubergine. Perhaps the Scottish influence did creep in after all? But Escocesa has a laid-back, unpretentious decor, classic Caribbean tunes adding to the atmosphere, and is cheaper than many of its rivals. We focused on the seafood menu, leaving plenty of enticing meat options for next time.