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.
I try to avoid central London wherever possible, of course I work a stone’s throw away from Covent Garden so do have the occasional lunchtime wonder around the area, and yes, sometimes Oxford street is pretty unavoidable when you want to go shopping and like me you detest malls like Westfield, but it is not something I particularly enjoy, especially as it does at times feel like everything is geared towards gullible and annoying tourists. That particularly rings true when it comes to eating out. I know, I know, Soho is full of great restaurants BUT where do you go if you are done with a day of shopping, find yourself on Regent or Carnaby street and don’t fancy waiting hours for a table at one of the Soho hotspot?
There is of course a plethora of overpriced and uninspired chain restaurants in your vicinity (looking at you Wagamama) or, even worse, the rip off tourist hell hole that is an Angus steak house, I mean I can only pity the poor souls who I hope are mainly clueless tourists that end up there, paying a hell of a lot for crappy food, but no where really in that area serving good food in a nice atmosphere where you are actually able to have a decent meal for a decent price.
Well good thing then that team behind Pastaio decided central London needed some affordable and authentic pasta because I now have a fool proof dining option when in central, serving some of the best pasta I have come across in London!
First things first, Pastaio ain’t fine dining but also it doesn’t pretend to be and here it really doesn’t matter. Pastaio is about honest, well sourced and authentic food, great service and a pleasant dining environment - you may not spend hours pottering around here post-dinner but you will leave well fed, fully satisfied and ready to re-enter the central London madness with a belly full with the best kind of carb, pasta!
The modern slightly industrial looking dining room is bright and filled with communal benches and tables for diners to perch at and though there is a no reservation system, you are able to put down your name, have a drink at one of the many old school pubs or bars close by and come back when a table becomes available. We went on a Friday night and there was a steady stream of people coming and going, without the place ever feeling too rammed which is incredibly refreshing considering some of the awfully long and awkward (pushed to the side in a busy dining room) waiting times I have endured in my lifetime of dining out, and me and my dining companion Charlotte were therefore more than excited to explore the menu as we sat down at one of the few individual tables towards the back of the restaurant.
The menu is simple yet effective, divided into three sections: starters, pastas and desserts – I mean who needs more in life, and we had an incredibly cheery, attentive and well informed waitress that not only guided us through the menu but also made sure that there was not one second of the dinner we didn’t feel properly looked after, no water glass ever running empty and every extra request immediately dealt with and dealt with with a smile to boost.
Starving after a particularly long Friday at work, we went straight in for the starters and a dish of watermelon, yellow tomatoes, feta and mint was all kinds of delicious and pretty much like summer on a plate, served with a basket of very Moorish warm sourdough that was good enough to eat by itself. Their burrata with olive oil, chilli and oregano was fine, not the best I’ve had but then again I think at Pastaio it really is all about the pasta and when it comes to that they do deliver on all fronts. My advice: if you are not desperate for a starter save the stomach space for the many pasta options on the menu as you’ll want to order everything!
Which is exactly what we did and we may not have been able to move much after dinner, we did manage to somehow make it to the cinema across the road to watch Rocketman, but every pasta dish we ordered was so damn good that it was hard not to polish it all off! And I am talking better than overhyped Padella kind of good, full of flavours and with exceptionally well-made pasta.
We were 2 people and shared 5 pasta dishes between us, which was admittedly a little excessive, but the pastas here are made to be shared and are very reasonably priced, no single dish costing more than £13 apart from the vongole linguine at £16, so come here to share away and try the amazing variety of pasta on offer! Not everything was perfect, the rigatoni with slow cooked tomato sauce and parmesan lacking a real wow factor though still more than edible, but overall I was very impressed, especially with less usual and imaginative pasta offerings like their spinach pasta with chilli, agretti (similar to monks beard) and breadcrumbs which came topped with bottarga (a salty Italian fish roe) adding an almost Japanesy salty fishy touch that sounds odd but was a real revelation, and the weekly special on their menu, a zingy and gorgeous plate of ricotta, fresh pea, pea shoots, butter and parmesan ravioli which literally melted in your mouth with every bite.
We also loved the red prawn spaghetti with plenty of chilli, and coming with the most juicy of prawns, served in their shells, that topped a perfectly prepared simple sauce with pasta that is hard to beat when done right like here. We finished off our pasta extravaganza with a plate of wild mushroom, garlic and parmesan tagliatelle which impressed with the excellent quality of the tagliatelle and fragrant mushroom medley and perfectly finished off a masterclass of pasta for us.
You can see at Pastaio they care about every step in the making of their pasta, from the dough to the final dish, and everyone with a love for Italian cooking will for sure leave this place with a big smile on their face, especially when prices are this reasonable considering its central London location. Plus for all meat eaters amongst you there is an equally enticing sounding selection of pasta options carbonara, pasta with slow cooked sausage sauce and mozzarella ravioli with a Bolognese ragu.
Dessert choices are a little more limited and my cannoli struggled with too many flavours combined into one poor canoli, no one needs orange, pistachio and chocolate in one dessert when one strong flavour would suffice, but as I said Pastaio is all about the pasta so skip the dessert, eat more pasta, wash it down with one of their nicely priced wines or prosecco slushies and have a fabulous, uncomplicated and delicious dinner!
I for one have a new go to spot to fulfil all my pasta cravings for which I would even venture into central…and that is saying something! Thank you Pastaio for making tourist hell a little more bearable!
* I was invited by Pastaio on this occasion but all views are my own and there was no obligation to post.
Poké bowls may be considered somewhat of a “trend” food at the moment in the same way froyo shops flooded London’s streets a few years back and people went all cray cray over bubble tea (never got that hype FYI) and yes, they are rather photogenic for the old Instagram, BUT they are also actually damn tasty and a healthy yet satisfying dinner option, for me fusing the best elements of sushi, the raw and deliciously marinated fish, with the most amazing of array of vegetables, fruits, pickles and all sorts of other fresh and healthy things.
Poké bowls originally stem from Hawaii (poke meaning “to slice” or “cue crosswise” in Hawaiian) and are traditionally served as starter or main there, made from raw tuna or octopus. Of course, what we consider a poke bowl in Europe isn’t strictly speaking the traditional Hawaiian dish anymore, rather a hybrid culinary creation, much like the California roll when it comes to sushi, which in recent years has emerged from the States and has slowly made its way over here.
In this process poke bowls have been “pimped up” for 21st century tastes, anything from avocados to Siracha mayo to pineapple, added as toppings to the raw fish with Japanese twist, and the traditional rice base, which can make this quite a heavy dish, ditched in favour of alternatives such as hipster and diet friendly kale, udon noodles or fancy black rice.
I tried my first Poké bowl a few years back and instantly loved the freshness of the flavours involved, seldom enjoying a dish so much with not a carb in site (I tend to go for a leaf base). I had some amazing bowls whilst on holiday in Bali, which is no surprise with their access to amazing fish, but London really has not done bad in recent years with their Poké bowl offering.
I’m not going to lie I’ve had some horrendously overpriced Poké bowls in London (mainly via Deliveroo) that left me rather dissatisfied. These were stingy on the fish, stingy on the toppings and lacked any real wow factor while still costing me well over a tenner. Now, I don’t mind paying for quality, but here I felt completely ripped off and it took some time to find a decent spot for a Poké bowl to take away when feeling lazy yet still wanting healthy, wholesome food.
Good thing then that I wondered past Ahi Poké on one of my Sunday walks, located just by Spitafields market (though they have a few London locations), and instantly got drawn in by people eating amazing looking and generously filled bowls on one of their outside tables. Inside it’s kind of like a Subway for Poke bowls and though you can get a suggested bowl I would always say definitely build your own! Even if you go all out and get a big bowl with double fish, you won’t spend a fortune and the servers here are super generous with every topping.
Oh, and Ahi Poké's toppings are quite something, not a plain cucumber in sight but more along the lines of burnt corn, coconut sweet potato, smashed yuzu avocado and all the fancy sauces your heart could desire, from sweet ponzu (one of my favourites) to Korean BBQ to Sirachi mayo. I also love that you are able to pick your base which is great depending on how hungry you feel – I usual go for Kale but on a few hungover occasions had some yummy udon noodles for some much-needed carb goodness. The staff are super friendly and helpful with suggestions of what goes best into your bowl in terms of fish / sauce combos and though not the cheapest takeaway option, it’s no Subway footlong after all, for me Ahi Poké is as good as fast food can be-, guilt free, yummy, imaginative AND not stingy when it comes to portions!
Of course as the amateur chef that I am, I was also intrigued to see if I could recreate a Poke bowl at home, I mean I knew I was not going to be able to dish up as big of an array of fancy toppings as Ahi Poké, not going to be fermenting my own kimchi cucumbers quite yet, but with a Saturday afternoon spare to go to a Korean supermarket near me (FYI there is a great one close to Angel tube called OSEYO) I thought it was worth a try, especially after I found a super easy recipe online.
Full transparency here, it probably ended up costing me more making this bowl than buying two big ones at Ahi, I had to get random ingredients like rice wine vinegar and tuna isn’t exactly cheap even from Sainsbury’s, but I did get a huge sense of satisfaction from the beautiful bowl I managed to cobble together in the end and I have to say it was super delicious! Now that I have the pantry staples, I will for sure make this again and try it with different toppings, the world really is your oyster here, especially as this is the perfect summer dish. Whether bought or homemade I am pretty glad this little dish has made the culinary journey all the way over here from Hawaii and I hope you will give them a go too.
Below my poke bowl recipe – let me know if you end up making it!
AHI TUNA POKE BOWL RECIPE WITH PONZU SAUCE
WHAT YOU NEED
This isn’t about exact quantities, freestyle your bowl though I would say one fillet of fish per person works perfectly.
FOR THE BOWL
Tuna fillet, diced
Mixed leafs (you can have udon noodles or rice if you want something a little more substantial
Jalapeno chillis, sliced – be careful with this, I added too much at the end, sprinkled on top, and ended up with a burning mouth
Toasted sesame seeds
FOR THE CITRUS PONZU SAUCE (IT’S AMAZING TRUST ME!)
This will make enough for 2-3 portions so adjust accordingly, the sauce is amazing so I used the rests up for other dishes!
1/2 cup soy sauce
1/4 cup orange juice, freshly squeezed
2 tablespoons lime or lemon juice
1 tablespoon mirin (sweet rice wine) or rice vinegar
FOR THE CITRUS PONZU
In a bowl add the soy sauce, orange juice, lime juice and mirin. Whisk well to combine.
FOR THE TUNA
Place the tuna in a medium mixing bowl with the green onions (reserve a little bit of the green onions to sprinkle on top of the bowls at the end).
Add some of the ponzu (to your taste, you can reserve some to pour over the rest of the ingredients). Add sesame seeds.
Mix gently to combine.
Cover and refrigerate for 30 minutes to an hour.If you let the fish sit for longer time, the citrus in the ponzu will slowly cook the fish.
FOR THE BOWL
Pile it up! Put the mixed leafs in a bowl and top with your desired toppings, edamame, avocado, the lot! My favourite is the sweetness from the pineapple to round it all off then add the chilled tuna. Sprinkle with the sliced chlli and some chopped coriander and enjoy!!
* I was invited by Ahi Poké on one occasion but have bought them independently on many occasions