Pear and stilton gnocchi

This recipe sounds ultra-fancy, but it can be knocked up in fifteen minutes, making it a very sociable dish for guests. And it’s cheap – a couple of pears, an onion, garlic, cheese, and some gnocchi comes to about £2 per serving. Pear and stilton is such a complimentary combination – don’t feel alarmed. Here’s some rare pictures of me cooking in my gorgeous student kitchen, curtesy of my wonderful photographer (and friend), James.

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Pear and stilton gnocchi (serves 2; vegetarian)

 Ingredients: 

  • 1 onion (I find brown works best, but shallots would also be banging)
  • 2 ripe pears, peeled and sliced
  • 2 cloves of garlic, crushed
  • 1 sprig of fresh rosemary
  • 100g stilton
  • 500g gnocchi

Method:

  1. Heat a saucepan with a tablespoon of olive, then fry off the onions for 5 minutes on a gentle heat. Add the sliced pear, followed by garlic and rosemary. Cook for about 10 minutes, while the gnocchi is cooking, stirring occasionally.
  2. Boil a pan of water, add the gnocchi and cook for 3 minutes – be careful to not over cook.
  3. Take the saucepan off the heat, and stir in the drained gnocchi. While still very hot, crumble the stilton over, and mix gently until creamy.

4. Season with pepper, and sprinkle over some nuts for added texture – pine nuts, cashews or walnuts work well.

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happy guests

Painting home comforts

The Open Eye Gallery, an independent and commercial gallery in the heart of Edinburgh, exhibits and sells walls worth of postcard-sized artworks by artists from all corners of Scotland. The delicate and tiny artworks range in subject and style, but when arranged all together they collude to form something beautiful and grand-scale. Though not explicitly intended to be in juxtaposition, somehow it seems that the paintings always intended to be in conversation; when an individual piece is sold, something new will take its place. The experience of cross-examining all these individual pieces is immersive, but I had a certain predilection for the simple still-life artworks which depicted objects from the kitchen, like lemons, pots and pans, and chopping boards.

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From the sight of my food posts and the inside of my kitchen cupboard, it is safe to say that I have a slight obsession with amalgamating pretty and unusual pieces of crockery – thankfully Exeter’s charity shops never fail to intrigue. Since my trip to the Open Eye Gallery, I’ve invested in a heap of 5×7 inch canvas boards, and am busy painting quaint kitchen scenes with acrylic. Using mostly earthy colours, and uneven block shapes, the painting style is not what I’m accustomed too.

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Fish on plate, acrylic paint

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Prawns in pan with lemon, acrylic paint

Autumnal menu reivew at The Oddfellows

My first impressions of The Oddfellows are from comedy and cocktail nights in the upstairs speakeasy; the vintage interior offers sophisticated quirks and charms that are a luxury for students, and the vast array of spirits and ales are incredibly exciting. The cocktails are an absolute delight – these experimental and delicious concoctions are overshadowed by popular and inexpensive cocktail bars in the city, attracting students from the deep, dark depths of their deadlines. If you’re in need of a cosy space for an uninterrupted first date, then students, leave the sugary, syrupy cocktail pitchers at Firehouse and head across the road to The Oddfellows. If conversation is sparse you can discuss the eccentric decor, like the giant pine cone chairs, or the animal heads hanging from the walls.

Sometimes I just hate breaking the news that I’m vegetarian to the restaurant owners overseeing my reviews, particularly after first-glance at a lavish meat feast of a menu consisting of duck breast, black pudding mousse, chorizo couqettes…the chefs certainly know how to curate a menu according to season. So when my lovely server, Ryan, recommended the last of the venison on today’s specials board I didn’t want to announce “I’m afraid we’re (referring to my lucky reviewee partner and myself) vegetarian”. And that’s made awkward more so by the fact that the only vegetarian main on the menu was a risotto, albeit a luxurious, al dente, creamy risotto. Although, I do prefer it when a menu is composed of a few extensively and passionately designed dishes. Situated on a table with full view of the happenings of the kitchen, the solo chef on this Monday evening knew his way round the elaborate yet tempting menu, juggling the orders for hungry diners.

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The dish that deserves the spotlight from this three course is surprisingly a simplistic vegetarian starter, which merely thinking about is making my mouth water. On paper, it’s rather unexciting: Goats cheese mousse, quince purée, and butternut squash. This restaurant certainly loves its mousses and purées. The goats cheese mousse melted in the mouth – it wasn’t overpowering or too rich like you’d expect it to be but was the perfect, soft accompaniment to the crunchiness of the butternut squash – which there were only three cubes of – a tad ungenerous, if not to emphasise the mousse as centerpiece.

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An additional vegetarian starter on the specials board also caught my eye: salad of roasted heart of artichoke, giant caramelized shallots, served with a concentrated spinach and basil dressing, and a sprinkling of pumpkin seeds. This was a wholesome and more filling starter compared to the first. But starters aren’t meant to fill you up, they’re there to whet your appetite for the next courses, and the goats cheese mousse was incredibly exciting, making me anticipate the what would come next.

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Up next was unfortunately the only vegetarian main up for grabs: creamy roasted cauliflower risotto with truffle oil. It didn’t disappoint in taste and appearance however; the charred cauliflower with truffle oil against the luxurious base of al dente (cooked to perfection in my books) risotto rice really worked. If you prefer less rich, less creamy risotto then this may not be for you – it’s truly indulgent.

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I’ve never had parfait before, so the dessert was an appealing excuse to try it I’m also a sucker for all the components of this dessert: peanut butter, caramelized banana and salted caramel sauce. I thoroughly enjoyed the way this was assembled, rather than merely plated; it was similar to the artistic arrangement of the winning starter.

On average starters and desserts were priced at £5.50, and mains ranging from £13 to £19, so it’s a student treat, or somewhere to take when the parents visit for graduation perhaps. I would definitely go again if the options for vegetarians were increased and more varied, there’s much more scope for experimentation in the non-meat dishes. Otherwise I’ll just have to order three of the goats cheese mousse starter.

Circa 1924 – a dining experience

Exeter is fortunate to be home to Circa 1924, a rare and eloquent gem of a restaurant, hidden amongst the myriad of chains burgeoning in the city centre. I was aware of its presence, near the entrance to Northenhay gardens, because it had taken over the sister chain to Harry’s restaurant approximately a year and a half ago. That it is a relatively new and entirely unique establishment the menu is surprisingly robust, and the restaurant incredibly distinct. Behind it’s creative initiative is an approximate date – in the midst of the roaring 20s.

Upon entering my host took the liberty to reserve me a table at the downstairs speakeasy, where pinstriped mixologists in braces delivered flavour combinations so good they should never have survived the prohibition. I learnt that the 1920s thrived as the golden age of cocktails to disguise the poorer quality spirits available, sparking experimentation in alcoholic concoctions. And Circa 1924 house cocktails are certainly experimental. Take the ‘Rum & Raisin Flip’, consisting of pecan and raisin infused Doorlys 5 year old rum, with date nectar, egg and cream. Or the ‘Dill & Fennel martini’, accentuating my favourite herbs in a gin based beverage. I started on the ‘Licorice Espresso martini’ for a pick-me-up before the meal for optimum concentration as hopeful food critic.

There’s a theatre to Circa 1924. The cheerful waiters served flawlessly and attentively whilst dancing around the room. Meals came out served immediately, without a second wasted  – no odd dishes sitting on the side in the kitchen. I watched astounded as a waiter poured my date’s Brixham crab bisque starter from a height into a bowl near her lap – without a single drop of it out of place.

When attending restaurant reviews my philosophy is to try the best thing that menu has to offer. Sometimes that means I have to bend my vegetarianism. Once I was told by my server that Circa 1924’s policy is to only sustainably farm fish within a <50km radius from the restaurant building, I felt a little more morally reassured about the plethora of seafood and fish I was about to consume. The clues in the title – ‘Brixham crab bisque’ gives you an indication of just how fresh that starter will be. Each evening there is an availability of 3 fish (on this particular evening lemon sole, mackerel and whitebait) which is hand selected by the restaurant’s own fish monger from fish markets across Devon, ready to be grilled for a succulent main.

 

I started off with the ‘crispy softshell crab’ which was a whole crab cooked in a very delicate batter, garnished with a fiery chilli and spring onion salad, drizzled with a dark aromatic sweet chilli sauce and wasabi. The crab was so tender and soft, and perfectly matched with an inventive twist of the Japanese style salad.

For main, I just had to have moules marinière as the mussels were farmed from the river Exe. The white wine sauce with parsley, lashings of double cream and caramelised onion. Testament to how exquisite it tasted, my date, who is terrified by the texture of mussels, kept helping herself to more.

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My instinct was to go for the white chocolate panna cotta for dessert, but then my date was adamant to have that – so I opted for the dark chocolate truffle torte, served with raspberry sorbet and coulis. Potentially this was the richest chocolate dessert I have ever tasted, so it is not for the faint hearted, but this was beautifully offset by the crisp raspberry sorbet. The petite panna cotta would have been a little too sweet for me if not accompanied by the thick, tart gooseberry coulis and biscuit crumble. The panna cotta was definitely the best option to end the evening meal on a delicate and light note.

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Having dinner at a restaurant that boasts such a decadent menu – complete with oysters and rare-breed steaks aged for a minimum of 28 days – seems a faraway and abstract concept for students such as myself. However, Circa 1924 also offers ways to experience such luxuries without the expensive price tag. On Tuesdays, it’s free corkage. On “hump day” Wednesday, steaks and cocktail infusions are 2 for 1. And from Tuesday to Saturday, you can have an express 2 course lunch for only £10.95. Please take full advantage of this offers, as I can vouch that it is the best dining experience I’ve had whilst living in Exeter.

Click here to see the full menu, and restaurant details

 

Comptoir Libanais restaurant review

The most recent newcomer to have opened in Queen Street is Lebanese cuisine specialists Comptoir Libanais.

The recent £12 million redevelopment of the old Guildhall Shopping area into a stylish restaurant quarter has seen the likes of Turtle Bay, Gourmet Burger Kitchen and Absurd Bird – and if Carribean or generous portions of American comfort food is not your cup of tea – Comptoir Libanais offers healthier mezes designed for messy sharing. I’m particularly happy that such a restaurant has been opened in Exeter; it accommodates many dietary requirements – the vegan, halloumi lover and the avid meat eater won’t be disappointed. I imagine it will become a perfect dining hotspot for hosting student birthday celebrations.

I was over the moon to be invited for a press review to the latest restaurant to open in Queen street. It had been running for two weeks when I arrived, since the 1st October, and I thought it would be interesting to see how the service was coping with its successful demand – every time I’d nipped in to check out the beautiful gifts for sale, the restaurant was bustling and the queue for tables backed through the door and into the street.

Let’s get the awkward part over with and talk about the review allowance. The press pass granted me a meal for two, which included: 1 mezze to share, 2 mains, 2 deserts and 1 bottle of wine/a cocktail each/2 beers each. Okay. So we’re not going to go home hungry – the meze sharing platters could easily suffice as a main between two guests – but as a student eagerly awaiting a January student loan instalment, I’m not one to complain about free food.

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We shared a gorgeous showstopper Mezze Platter to start. The generous Middle Eastern spread boasted baba ghanuj, hummus, tabbouleh, falafel, lentil salad, halloumi, alien-coloured pickles and pitta bread. The smokey baba ghanuj topped with pomegranate seeds and drizzled with oil was the clear winner on this plate; sometimes the aubergine can be bitter in baba ghanuj if its over done or not perfectly ripe, but I could eat this version by the shovelful. In my opinion, the halloumi was disappointing for a cuisine famous for this beautiful cheese; it was cold and a little stiff and you could tell that it had been sitting around for awhile. Comptoir Libanais clearly assemble their platters by demand, after having the components cooked and waiting around since opening – luckily this does not affect the delicious and fresh-tasting tabbouleh and lentil salad.

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For main I ordered an aubergine tagine which came in a rich tomato and chickpea sauce garnished with a mint yoghurt dip, and served with heaps of couscous. The overall flavour of the dish was tasty, however the aubergine could have been a more of a substantial feature because it had largely disintegrated leaving behind a tomato and chickpea sauce. My reviewee date ordered a “Chef special” halloumi tortilla, which was not truly that special. It was served cold, the halloumi was no where to be seen, and the salad was insubstantial.

Then the meal was revived by a trio of deserts. We had a plateful of baklava, halva and roasted pistachio ice cream, and mouhalabia. I absolutely adored the mouhalabia – which is a traditional Lebanese milk pudding flavoured with rose syrup and topped with toasted pistachios. It’s a little like a Middle Eastern, vegetarian version of the panna cotta, which is brought alive by rose water. From what I sampled of the cocktail menu, it seems the restaurant have mastered some amazing flavours. I had the Roomana vodka sour, featuring pomegranate juice, vodka, lemon juice and rose syrup. It was all but too easy to drink, and its smoothness wasn’t ruined by the substantial amount of vodka.

Now you Devonshire foodies shouldn’t be fooled – the menu and interior assumes an air of authentic dining experience, but it is sadly another chain addition to Queen Street. Comptoir Libanais has thirteen restaurants currently open, majorly in London, and has plans to expand across the country, particularly the South West. I would go back again, but I hope its current popularity in Exeter will draw attention to the hidden Middle Eastern gems. The New Horizon on Longbrook street may not have the glamorous exterior of Comptoir Libanais, but the dishes the singular owner creates taste sensational. Furthermore, The Dinosaur café’s mezzes and more could take a chain like Comptoir Libanais from under the carpet if only it had more recognition than a family run business.

Sloe gin

sloe gin…and an incredibly sloe process (three months to be exact). Sloe gin makes a thoughtful Christmas gift, accompanied by homemade jams and chutneys in a hamper.

Do not worry about purchasing an expensive bottle of gin, a supermarket own will suffice.

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Sloe gin produces 1 bottle; vegan 

Ingredients:

  • 350g handpicked sloes
  • 250g sugar
  • 35cl gin of your choice

Method:

  1. Forage your sloes when they are in season (beginning to ripen in late August). Clean them thoroughly, throwing away any unripe, squashed or rotting.
  2. Using a sterilised needle, prick the sloes all over so that the juice of the fruit can seep through and flavour the gin.
  3. Sterilise a large kilner jar by placing it in an oven at 160°c for 20 minutes. Once cooled, add the fruit, followed by the sugar and gin. Seal and shake well.
  4. Store your jar in a cool, dark cupboard for 3 months. Make sure to shake every few days, or as often as you remember.
  5. After 3 months, strain the gin through muslin and bottle.