18 December 2011

not so lovestruck by a chimichanga in London...

I have recently decided to give online dating a try. It's a bit similar to searching for a needle in a haystack...there is the chance of finding love, but I think it depends on the time put in and the dedication of the search. I doubt I have that much time or am that dedicated....but I am giving it a go.

... Last Saturday night I went on my first date with a New Zealand born man that had impressed me with his profile. I was also impressed that he called (rather than text) to arrange our meet up at McDonalds in Victoria Station. McDonalds already sounds like a pretty bad start, but just to clarify that was only a meeting place ;) We continued on from there to a Mexican restaurant. This was an unfortunate decision on his part. I am the last person you want to take to a Mexican restaurant in London on a first date. Having grown up barely 20 minutes from the Mexican border in southern Arizona I am very critical of the restaurants claiming to be Mexican in the UK. To be fair, I have not given many of them a chance but for good reason, authenticity is limited. Just a peak at the menu tends to put me off and I prefer to cook Mexican at home with my much sought after and occasionally imported (thanks mum) selection of ingredients. Given I spend a lot of time with foodies and I consider Mexican food to be one of my areas of expertise I am often asked for a London recommendation. I think it's about time to educate myself on Mexican in London...so this trip to Loco Mexicano in Victoria will be the kick off of my search for the best Mexican in London.

A first glance at the menu had me stifling laughter. I would not normally take photos on a first date, but I was not particularly enamored by my companion and I could not resist documenting this experience. The menu offered a hodgepodge of items some sounding vaguely Mexican and some completely not.

I was surprised to see chimichangas on the menu. A chimichanga is a deep fried burrito, but its origins are of more interest. It is not Mexican but rather it is claimed to have been invented in beautiful Tucson, Arizona...most credit being taken by El Charro Restaurant (a Tucson chain) as an accident when a burrito was dropped in the deep fryer. A good machaca chimichanga is delicious with a crispy flour tortilla and the spiced shredded beef filling. Machaca or carne seca is a way of preparing dried spiced beef and then rehydrating it. This is common in northern Mexico and southern Arizona.

The menu offered chicken, vegetable or ground beef. I went for the ground beef as it was closest to the shredded beef that I love.

There was a good selection of Mexican beer (Pacifico and Negro Modelo to name two), an interesting cocktail list and a variety of margaritas.

I really wanted a margarita, but was worried I would regret it. A badly made margarita that tastes of cheap tequila is hard to choke down. My date suggested we order a pitcher and I was tempted to suggest we get the premium version (made with Cointreau and Patron tequila) but considering that was an extra £10 I bit my tongue and hoped for the best. I was once again surprised. They were very drinkable, although this was actually due to very low tequila content.

The plate arrived and it was obvious at first glance that the guacamole was not home-made. It was too smooth and flavourless. The rice was not worth eating...slightly undercooked and bland. Little more than white rice with a touch of tomato sauce. The side salad was the most impressive...fresh salad, cucumber and a nice lime based dressing. The chimichanga itself was OK. It wasn't fried quite right...I think this may have been due to it being put in a pan of oil rather that a really hot deep fat fryer. What was surprising was the fact it was actually shredded beef inside. So +10 points for offering the better option, but -10 points for having an inaccurate menu. The shredded beef mixture was quite wet...not machaca but impressively close...

My date was nice and the food was edible. Unfortunately neither of them win a repeat night out with me. I think I am just really hard to please particularly when it comes to men and Mexican. Loco Mexicano is doing something right...they know how to please the general public. The place was packed! The prices are cheap and they have a menu that is diverse with enough Mexican sounding items that for most (probably nearly all) visitors they appear totally Mexican. I don't think they will be bothered that this Arizona girl will not be returning

However, this meal has inspired me to begin the search for something better...there must be a place in London that tastes like Mexico.

Loco Mexicano on Urbanspoon

If you find yourself in Tucson and want to taste a chimichanga at the place where they claim it all began...find your way to El Charro...be sure to get the shredded beef (machaca)...

El Charro Cafe on Urbanspoon

01 December 2011

lessons in wine...harmonise and complement

Earlier this week I was invited to a 6 course meal with a wine tasting at The Hempel's No. 35 Restaurant located in the boutique hotel, The Hempel. The wine was provided by Jacob's Creek and was specifically matched to the dishes prepared by chef Michael Carter. Adrian Atkinson from Jacob's Creek provided a detailed explanation of the grapes, the regions, the age, taste and other qualities important to the wine. I love wine, but I am definitely a novice when it comes to choosing and matching so I found the evening fascinating.

Jacob's Creek wines are from South Australia and have just recently been introduced to the UK. The focus of this company is on regionality.

The menu at No. 35 is also based on regionality and the ingredients are all sourced from independent suppliers. The chef personally described each of the dishes and the origin of the ingredients.

The first course was hand doven scallops that were perfectly prepared and were enhanced by a smooth slightly sweet red onion jam. This was served with a mild black pudding, which was flavourful but not overpowering. The wine was a Reserve Riesling 2010. It is a dry Riesling that pairs well shellfish and clean simple foods. It has been aged for over 15 months so it has become more complex in flavour and the colour has deepened compared to a younger bottle.

Next was a beetroot salad with 4 types of beetroot served with a Staffordshire light goat curd. Each beet root offered a distinctive flavour but all went well with the very soft goat cheese and the hazelnut gave a nice crunch. The wine was a Reserve Sauvignon Blanc.

Following that was a match made in heaven. The moment I sipped the Chardonnay I tasted toasty vanilla. It is a delicious wine from the high altitude region of the Adelaide Hills. It was served with seabass caught off the coast delicately flavoured with madagascar vanilla and chanterelles. The soft vanilla flavour harmonised with the vanilla of the wine. It was perfect union, where the food and the wine enhanced each other.

The mushroom consommé was described by the chef as the least sustainable item on his menu. It had an Asian influence inspired by time he had spent in Japan. It was earthy and delicious, the perfectly cooked quail egg oozed into the broth. The chicken was just done, and perfectly tender. It was an unbelievable dish...each bite better than the one before. The wine was a Pinot Noir. Simple, soft, slightly acidic and so nice. It complimented the consommé.

The flat iron steak was organic beef sourced from Wales and  was served with caramelised onions, leeks and very buttery soft mash. A lovely dish. Australia is know for Shiraz so it was important that Jacob's Creek make this right. It was much denser than the Pinot Noir and gave a nice warm sensation.

The final dish was a selection of cheeses from, "La Fromagerie", a local cheese shop. The plate included one French and five English cheese. They were served with a Cabernet. This wine was amazing. Fresh tasting offering a smell of coldness quite the opposite of the warmth in the Shiraz and hints of blackcurrent and cassis.

There was no doubt about the quality of the ingredients in every dish. It was a fantastic menu and was taken from the normal tasting menu currently offered at Number 35. I would highly recommend a visit. Michael Carter is a chef that clearly cares about what he serves and does the research to source the best.

The wine was also fabulous. As a gift we were each given a bottle of our choice. I chose the Chardonnay as I was overwhelmed by the vanilla warmth that it provided. Sadly I left this bottle on the train. I hope it was appreciated and that I have inadvertently introduced someone to this lovely wine. I can't wait to get another bottle and I would not hesitate to purchase Jacob's Creek in the future (Cabernet, Pinot Noir, and Riesling being my other favourites). I should mention they are affordable at £10 per bottle.

I was a guest at Number 35, but the tasting menu with matching wine is £75 per person.

**UPDATE Jan 2012*** Jacob's Creek Reserve Chardonnay is available in a case of 6 at Costco (Definitely the Croydon one) for £33.95...that's an excellent price of less than £6 per bottle.

Number 35 on Urbanspoon
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