Writing about food is such a funny thing. What arrives on your plate can be so simple in its construction – for many people a means to an end, or a requirement for survival– and yet, food is never really just about what you cut with your knife and fork, what you chew and what you swallow. The stories, people, political and social factors behind what you eventually end up consuming can be seemingly limitless. I was reminded of this recently at a dinner at Pastaio, celebrating the relaunch of its lobster pasta dish.
It might seem straightforward at first glance – a pasta restaurant brings a seasonal item back to their menu, bish bash bosh. But, no – after chatting to operators Stevie Parle and Liam Nelson, I realised it was so much more than that. The reason the restaurant serves these lobsters in the first place is thanks to pandemic business Lockdown Lobsters. In a stroke of fortuitous timing, photographer Jude Edgington happened to be in North Wales photographing lobster fisherman Sion Williams on the 17th March 2020. While on the trip Edgington was facing relentless cancelled shoots due to the impending lockdown, and Williams was looking down the barrel of the decimation of his income – with restaurants closing around the world, his primary market had evaporated.
Lobster linguine was wonderful – messy, sauce-splattering goodness that left the entire table littered with lobster claws and pasta sauce
The plan was quickly hatched and the business formed – Edginton employing a number of friends who were also out of work due to the pandemic, all of them helping to transport the lobsters from South Wales up to London. During this time, Stevie Parle purchased a number of lobsters for his own pandemic project, Joy. The relationship continued as restaurants reopened and found itself imagined in this dish: Whole lobster linguine for two. It was expectedly wonderful – messy, sauce-splattering, slurping goodness that left the entire table littered with lobster claws and pasta sauce.
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Firmly aboard the Italian train, I took my in-laws to Ombra for a late birthday meal. I have written many times about Ombra, but I truly love it. Whether you’re there for lunch on the terrace with an abundance of spritz, or for a long dinner cosied up inside with free-flowing red wine, Ombra always delivers.
Gnoccho fritto draped in wild boar mortadella is one of those universally delicious dishes that Mitshel Ibrahim absolutely nails. It’s so simple, yet so good, and the depth of flavour brought by the wild boar lifts the whole thing to another level. “I’ll have another one of those ham sandwich things,” said my partner’s father approvingly. Equally as good was the tonnato, littered with vibrant caperberries, and the cauliflower mushrooms with nduja and egg yolk, the feathery mushrooms more than holding their own against the hit of nduja spice and rich, golden yolk. If this job didn’t pull me around every corner of the city most evenings then I’d be at Ombra at least once a week.
The arrival of scorching, sunny weather brought with it a desire to eat outside as much as possible, and it seemed fitting to head to Acme Fire Cult, where the team are doing things with fire which should be considered illegal (especially when one half of the duo at the helm, Andrew Clarke, has such an impressive beard. Surely it’s something of a fire hazard?) That is to say, there are no cremated slabs of meat and misguide machismo here, no – Acme Fire Cult uses the flame to subtly coax out flavours you simply couldn’t get from the hob.
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We ate Marmite-soaked focaccia that arrived covered in a bed of pecorino. The resulting chunks of bread were chewy, umami laden and dangerously moreish. Burrata, a cheese that has a reputation for being deeply uncool, was made incredibly interesting courtesy of charred, almost confit tomato and bottarga. A piece of blackened sourdough was almost drowning in an unctuous, delicately sweet pile of crab and bone marrow, the addition of shaved fennel adding a gratifying crunch. Merguez sausages arrived simple – accompanied by just a vibrant salsa verde and tangy schmear of yoghurt.
In true Four Legs style, though, they still served up a plate piled high with chipolatas paired with a nose-wateringly punchy mustard
The sun, however, can only last so long, and a drizzly Sunday made the perfect excuse to head to The Plimsoll – the new(ish) venture from the guys behind Four Legs. While their cooking as Four Legs was undeniably impressive, at The Plimsoll it seems they’ve had the space to grow and develop, keeping the elements that made Four Legs interesting (Euro-centric, modern flavour combinations that highlight good produce without taking themselves too seriously, alongside that damn cheeseburger) while branching out a little bit, turning out bolder, more intriguing dishes. In true Four Legs style, though, they still served up a plate piled high with chipolatas paired with a nose-wateringly punchy mustard, like something you’d get at a keto sausage sizzle. The incongruity of the old-man pub setting and the exceptional food being churned out makes for a magnificent meal.
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The fortnight finished in the loveliest of ways with a quick jaunt up to the incredible Roots in York. The sister spot of The Black Swan in Oldstead, it’s a restaurant that so wonderfully encapsulates why Tommy Banks is one of the country’s greatest chefs. There were no missteps – no mean feat on a ten-course tasting menu. Instead, there was plate after plate of exceptional food showcasing seasonal ingredients, using only produce sourced from their farm in Oldstead.
Things kicked off exceptionally well with a simple chicken and lemon verbena broth, the warming liquid holding a deceptive amount of flavour that sang with every sip – no Cup-a-soup will ever quite taste the same again. Culinary ingenuity was showcased throughout – in, for example, the venison dish, where venison heart was cured and then shaved atop a delicate tartlet containing venison tartare. Or in the pear dish where a pile of icy pebbles turned out to be infused with Cote Hill blue cheese.
Even here, though, the plates that appeared in front of us were so much more than the sum of their parts. There is a story woven into each dish – the kitchen garden for example, or the unique timeline of the venison season. Food is never just food and eating is not something that can ever be separated from the sociocultural intricacies around us. Whether it’s lobsters being the catalyst for a business that helped multiple people financially survive throughout the pandemic or produce as a commentary around the importance of seasonal, local consumption to counteract ruinous food chains, this fortnight of eating served as an important reminder of the way in which food is woven into all aspects of our lives, not simply our stomachs.