Summer is officially here, well as much as it will ever arrive and stay in London, and this kind of weather makes me crave salads! Not some limp lettuce with a bland dressing and a few sad chopped up tomatoes but something that still packs a punch flavour wise and which is filling enough for a satisfying main.
This salad, combining slow roast garlic cloves and baby new potatoes, tossed in plenty of oregano and olive oil, with juicy honeydew and watermelon chunks, fresh mint and basil as well as slowly melted feta and halloumi is all kinds of amazing- not only looking like summer on a plate with its gorgeous colours but striking the perfect balance between sweet and savoury, fresh yet comforting. It is also super easy to prepare, I made it for a friend on a Friday night after some quick chopping, and was so impressively tasty that it has for sure been added to my recipe repertoire.
If you can, go to your local greengrocer for this one, personally I think fresh fruit and particularly melons tend to taste rather bland from supermarkets and here you really need every ingredient to be as punchy as possible.
I found the original recipe by Anna Jones (who also has drool worthy Instagram profile) on the Guardian website, one of my favourite sources for recipe inspiration. I am also a big fan of Racheal Roddy’s Italian cooking column, but tweaked it with the addition of halloumi because heck I fancied some and two kinds of cheese are definitely better than one! I cannot stress enough how easy and delicious this was and I for one hope there will be plenty more hot summer evenings to rustle this up for, enjoyed with an ice cold glass of rosé
Serves 3 700g small new potatoes 1 unwaxed lemon 1 head garlic 3 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil 1 tbsp oregano Salt and black pepper 1kg melon (I used watermelon and honeydew) 200g block feta cheese 1 block of halloumi, quartered 1 bunch of basil 1 bunch of mint, leaves picked Good drizzle of honey
· Heat the oven to 200C .
· Chop any large potatoes in half and keep the smaller ones whole, then transfer to a large baking tray.
· Use a speed peeler to peel the zest from the lemon in long strips, then add to the tray.
· Bash the head of garlic until the cloves are slightly split, then add to the tray with the olive oil and oregano.
· Season well, then roast for 20 minutes.
· Peel and slice the melons into thin half-moons, removing the seeds as you go.
· After the potatoes have had 20 minutes, take them out of the oven, then squash them down with a potato masher or fork until broken apart and flattened.
· Break over the feta and chopped up halloumi, then return the tray to the oven for a further 10-15 minutes, or until golden and crisp all over.
· Remove from the oven, toss with the juice of half the lemon, then add the melon, basil and mint.
I have to admit that my dinner at Sardine was a little bit of an odd yet still very much recommendable experience. The food was no doubt fantastic- French, modern European cooking, presented beautifully, served in a stunning modern dining room with attentive service and a great selection of wine.
What was odd was the fact that not that many people seem to be aware of all these positives and the restaurant as a whole, which meant that our dinner was at times eerily quiet, at 6pm on a Sunday us being the only diners for a good half an hour before a couple of single diners settled down for their meal. Of course, that meant, looking at the positives, that we never had to wait long for our food but it did make us a little uncomfortable at times, surrounded by empty (albeit beautiful) chairs and tables. This isn’t helped by the location of the restaurant, hidden right behind a McDonalds drive-through on a busy and not very pretty road that connect Old Street and Angel.
I mean I can see why the team behind Pastaio chose this patch, there are a lot of fancy new-build apartments cropping up everywhere, ready for well to do millennials to move into, and there has also been the opening of the Parasol unit art gallery in the same building as the restaurant, so really with all the potential there to get a food savvy crowd, looking for a local spot to dine at inside the restaurant, despite or especially because of the golden arches lying right ahead. But even I, having walked past the place, many, many times, it being on my walk home from the big Sainsbury’s to my house, done on a near weekly basis, had been somewhat perplexed by this chic looking restaurant being where it is rather than compelled to go in. And had I not stumbled across Sardine’s Instagram after some serious social media stalking I may have missed out on some of the best French cooking I have had in London, mere minutes from my house, with interiors that are more Soho or East Village than Hoxton side street.
And in a way, that makes Sardine a hidden dining gem worth treasuring, a place where for the time being you are able to get a last-minute table on a Friday night, where it feels like you are at a central London hot spot but without the annoying crowds, queuing and rushed waiters. I would love to come back on a Saturday or Friday night with a little more buzz though it was quite adorable seeing a very diverse mix of locals dining here as the evening progressed, from an elderly couple on date night to a big family group. I adored the dining space and attention to detail paid when it came to the overall interiors of the place, from the pastel coloured, patterned front of the restaurant that instantly makes you wonder what could be hiding inside, to the wall murals, long communal dining table and pastel tiles inside, it’s a minimal hipster’s wet dream and has something very Scandi chic but still incredibly welcoming about it.
The menu is well curated, with a focus on Southern French cooking and seasonal ingredients, and it really feels like the chefs here, who you can see in action with the open plan kitchen, made this menu for you, giving the whole dining experience a very intimate touch. Starters weren’t flawless, our bread and butter weren’t of the quality I’d expect at a “French inspired” restaurant, but our starter of salt cod, stuffed into a friggitelli (an Italian sweet pepper) and served with a tomato sauce was fresh and tasty while our Salade Tunisienne was summer on a plate – perfectly dressed leafs with tomato, cucumber, coriander and egg.
There are only 5 mains on offer, 1 vegetarian, 2 fish and 2 meat options which is not a huge selection but again you are here to trust the kitchen- I asked our lovely waitress what she would choose as none meat eater and went with her recommendation of roast Gunard, white beans, datterini tomatoes and bottarga butter which not only looked almost too pretty to eat but was an utter delight to eat. Not cheap at £19.5 a portion, but showcasing high quality ingredients and attentive cooking like you seldom find in bigger kitchens. We also had some fantastic chips on the side, all kinds of fluffy and fried to perfection, served with a fresh aioli which I could have bathed in and some creamed spinach, both very generously portioned.
My friend went for a more permanent fixture on the menu, the onglet with chips and pepper sauce, which sadly was not too much of a delight to eat, the meat rather chewy BUT my friend not blaming the restaurant rather an unhappy cow which can happen at even the best of restaurants. I would thus say if you dine at Sardine stick to the more seasonal mains as those give the talented chefs in the kitchen a real chance to show off their creativity.
For dessert, I plumped for the nougat ice cream with fennel biscuit which tasted incredibly fresh and well made, not over the top in size and flavour but just right – a kind of refined yet casual cooking style that I think encompasses Sardine, and something you do not find too often in London without going into the super expensive. That is the whole thing, Sardine has all the makings of a fantastic neighbourhood joint, one anyone would be more than happy to have close by but it is almost too hidden for its own good right now.
If you are after a really, really well-cooked French dinner that almost feels like you have a private chef, eaten in a lovely dining environment, make your way to Sardine, these guys deserve a chance to step out of the shadow of the fast food giant that is right in front of them and if it were in central London (it reminds me a lot of 10 Greek street actually), you’d be queuing no matter the weekday and pay a lot more for it.
Yet another review on my continued quest to find the perfect pasta in London . I had walked passed Pasta Nostra, a restaurant taking over a space previously occupied by a rather weird and short-lived vegan seitan pop up, ever since it opened a few weeks ago, it being on my daily walk into work from East into Central London.
Pasta Nostra is in a bit of an odd location I must admit, a 2 minute walk away from Old Street station and the hustle and bustle of Shoreditch, yet kind of in a no man’s land stretch between Old Street and the Barbican, surrounded by fancy student accommodation new builds and offices, but do not let that put you off because if you aren’t making the trip to Pasta Nostra you are missing out on the freshest pasta I have had to date in London, with a passionate, young and innovative team behind it all that deserve a chance to stand their own ground in London’s dining scene.
It is of course not the easiest of turfs for independently run restaurants to open and flourish in, a market very much dominated by both big chains- incidentally there is a huge Wagamamas about to open next to Old street station which let’s be honest no one REALLY needs unless you are after uninspired, inauthentic and overpriced Asian food, and smaller chains like Franco Manca, Honest Burger and the like, all not exactly making it easy for budding restauranteurs without huge financial backing to stand a chance of establishing themselves and getting enough diners through the door while paying extortionate London rents.
The more reason to admire the guts it must have taken for the team behind Pasta Nostra to make the dream of their own restaurant a reality, especially considering that the duo behind it are both in their 20s, and with the quality of food they serve up I urge you all to support their business with a visit, mainly because the food they serve up is bloody fantastic but also because they deserve the chance.
I mean I was a little dubious before my visit not only because of the location, the building façade doesn’t exactly scream “amazing Italian food”, as I found out Pasta Nostra not able to change much of the outside look of the building with it owned by the aforementioned overpriced private student accommodation contractors, but once inside (the dinning space is pleasantly bright, slightly industrially inspired, modern and with ample space) and presented with a concise yet imaginative menu, my dining companion Henry and I were getting increasingly excited to get down to what really matters at any restaurant, the food.
And I have to say you can really see the labour of love that has gone into every dish, after all the culinary minds running the show have previously worked at some of London’s best restaurants including Michelin starred restaurant Trinity so clearly they know their stuff. Unlike at Pastaio, no menu component felt like an afterthought- every dish, whether starter, main or dessert, beautifully presented and executed, letting flavours do the talking rather than overcomplicating things.
Starters were great and generously portioned, a real steal too with no starter being more than £8, with the stand outs being a proper gooey burrata (the times I’ve been served burrata that was more like a Tesco Value mozzarella in London is too many to recount even at “fancy Italians”), served with an intriguing addition of pressed sorrel that added an unexpected fresh earthiness, as well as their pane burro e alici, two thick slices of their freshly baked focaccia topped with Sicilian anchovies which may sound like a simple dish but was done here to absolute perfection- salty fish, the most fluffy of bread and a good soaking of proper Italian olive oil that allowed the fantastic ingredients to do the talking.
The same can be said for the pasta dishes. Walking into Pasta Nostra one cannot help but drool over a display full of gorgeous looking pastas of all shapes and sizes, prepared freshly on site each day, and boy do they taste as good as they look. Pasta dishes change seasonally but there were 9 very different ones to choose from when we went, with a good mix of meat, fish and veg options to please all palates and I was truly stunned by every single plate we tried. There are no bastardised Bolognese sauces to please British palettes and no copious amounts of cheese grated on top to deter from what should offer enough flavour by itself, a proper pasta with a freshly made sauce, because at Pasta Nostra it is about going back to basics and I have not felt more like being back in a Italy with real deal amazing pasta like I did here.
A plate of freshly made Gnocchi Puttanesca was an utter dream, you could see how the gnocci were hand rolled and much smaller than the supermarket versions we are used and incredibly light and fluffy at that, served with the most flavourful slow cooked tomato, caper and olive sauce. Tiny and beautifully crafted Orecchiette al Pesto came with an intriguing basil pesto, green bean and potato sauce, a dish not only stunning with its vivid green colour but an utter delight to eat and like nothing I had tried pasta wise before. My personal favourite however was the Mezzaluna Vigarola, a kind of ravioli filled with the freshest ricotta and in a herb sauce with broad beans, asparagus and peas- zingy, incredible flavours and top class ingredients all coming together on one plate.
What makes this even more incredible are the prices, £7 for the generous bowl of gnocci, £8 for the orrechiette and even the most pricy dish (which to be fair features surf clams) will only set you back £13 – considering the quality of ingredients used here as well as the innovative approach to flavours and sauces, not forgetting the first class fresh pasta you cannot really find better value for money in London and I mean that.
This was only further reiterated when it came to dessert. I LOVE cannolis and sadly have struggled to find a good version of this Sicilian classic in London (let’s not talk about the flavour overload version I tried at Pastaio) but at Pasta Nostra it was absolute perfection, a crispy shell, filled with proper sheep’s milk ricotta and with the ends dipped in freshly crushed pistachio, huge too for £4 and pretty much the perfect end to a perfect Italian meal, strangely enough in London!
Service was also impeccable, we chatted to the owners a little, and the wine list is small yet once again perfectly curated and very reasonably priced. I have eaten a lot of pasta in my time and there are many places in London where you can get a decent plate but seldom do you see such passion behind each dish. I really hope these guys are able to establish themselves and urge you to go before the whole of London realises that Pasta Nostra is worlds better than Padella at prices that are almost too good to believe for London standards. Leave the chains to one side for once, make the trip to Pasta Nostra and find pasta heaven, even if it doesn’t look like it at first sight.