Stress free dinner party hosting


Back in the (child-free) day, we used to host a lot of dinner parties in the Graphic Foodie household. And back then dinner parties were BIG. I’d typically start cooking from Friday night, all the way through to Saturday and devise showy menus, either with loads of courses or I’d have some crazy idea like recreating the timballo dish from the Big Night movie (link).


Behind my red lipstick veneer, I’d often be frazzled and spent far too much time in the kitchen rather than socialising. But that was my idea of fun back then!

These days though, time limitations have forced me into chilling out just that little bit more and dinner dates at home have become about catching up with friends and family - as they should be. I still love to cook for people but the food has also simplified and if I’m honest, my guests seem to like it just as much.

Here are my fail-safe tips that I have picked up for stress-free hosting.

Check your guest’s requirements
I’ve only ever had one occasion when someone turned up with a “dietary-requirement” guest. They were promptly served a raw carrot on a plate (that’s me for you), but find out in advance if you need to cater specifically. I prefer serving and eating the same thing as the rest of the table so if I have my vegan friends over, then we all eat vegan food. Far easier and actually your other guests (or you) may discover a new dish or two.

Preparation, preparation, preparation.
I like to cook slow roast meats like flavour-packed porchetta, big one-pot dishes of Sicilian chicken stew or meals you can prepare well in advance like a baked pasta dish. Freshly baked bread or focaccia is a must on our table and again, something that can be done the previous day. Plan your menu and have a maximum of one course you need to actively cook or prepare on the night. There are plenty of desserts like tiramisu, warm-cakes and charcuterie-based starters that need no last-minute preparation. The only thing I like to do is to serve and enjoy.

Simple serving
Family-style serving should not be sniffed at. It’s a communal and convivial way to eat. Food in general seems more accessible and more relaxed than ever, so big serving plates that people can help themselves to eases the pressure to dish up and also makes guests feel more comfortable.

Dress the table
You’re bound to forget knives or water glasses at the last minute so set the table well in advance to avoid faffing with tips to the kitchen on the night. A well-dressed table will make the night feel more of an occasion anyway. You don’t need fancy plates but nice napkins, perfectly arranged cutlery and proper glasses always help. Places like Tiger sell really cheap napkins and colourful accessories.



Aperativo
Have a little time before sitting at the table for a catch up. I like to serve a cocktail or at the very least some prosecco and nibbles. I usually have an Italian focused meal planned (typical Italian me!) so some nibbles that suit like these Crosta & Mollica Tarrallini are ideal (The packaging design makes me so happy too). Snacks like taralli are typically served with drinks in Italy and feel a touch more special than a bag of crisps! My favourite are the classic fennel seed ones and with a few roast pistachios and some marinated olives, will make the aperativo the event it should be.

Digestivo
Same at the other end! We’ve had many dinner party end into the small hours of the morning with our drinks cupboard for company. We like grappa or some of the regional herbal liquers like Genziano that aid digestion. Apparently.

My ideal menu would be something like the below, most of these recipes on my blog have made it to a dinner party night and gone down really well.

Starters



Main meal



Dessert



This post was sponsored by Crosta & Mollica, products I buy and love (and THAT packaging design!). RRP (£1.89 from Tesco, Waitrose and Ocado).


REVIEW: Azaro, Hove

I have a lot of time for people who are passionate about sharing their food culture. I also love unexpected accents. Owner Az, clearly of Indian decent, enthusiastically explained everything in a joyful Yorkshire accent. Coming from the curry capital of the UK, Az and his partner Kirti, settled on Hove to fulfil a life long dream of setting up a restaurant that offered proper Indian food and culture with a contemporary, Dhaba style twist.

Indian regional food is as complicated as Italian so I don't claim to have too much of an education here. Azaro's style, Desi Dhaba food, is the Indian equivalent to a trattoria I suppose (Dhaba is a traditional road side restaurant which focusses on home-style cooking). So don't come here expecting curry house classics.


We started with crisp papdums and Indian snacks, which come with a range of homemade chutneys. I love this. The heat, the interest, the spices are all showcased in these little pots of chutneys.


The Punjabi Samosa Chaat was a pretty dish and something new to me. The samosa was layered with so many different textures and flavours; chickpeas, masala, aromatic, sweet and fresh chutneys, finally topped with crunchy vermicelli and pomegranate seed jewels. This one was very popular with the Brighton Food Festival crowd and will be on the menu very soon. 


Our Hyderabadi dhum biryani was absolute stand out. I've had the dish before, sometimes bland, sometimes dry... this was neither. Cooked in the traditional clay pot and covered in a pastry lid which had been rubbed with mustard oil, locking in all the flavour and creating a steam environment for the layers of rice and the sweetest, most tender lamb. You are given a bona fide biryani spoon (and instructions!) to break the crust and mix in your masala gravy and raita. I dined with my gorgeous friend and we were told that doggy bags were available and not to worry about leftovers. There were no leftovers (soz husbands).


They seem keen on using good suppliers, mostly local and decent meat and fish. This you can tell. The silky chicken chettinad from the thali tray was full of flavour and the texture of poultry will always give away its quality. Thali trays are a dish for greedy eyes; the chutneys, the breads, the little mango lassi, the surprise sweet dish...I'll never get over the fun of eating one. Everything on the tray is made in-house too so you really do get to experience the skill of the kitchen.

I do love a tandoori platter and saw they have this as well as the proper clay oven. There were also some Keralan inspired fish dishes, another of my favourites, so I think a return visit or two is needed to dive deeper into the menu, there's certainly plenty on it I would happily order.

Also an asset of Azaro is the female ratio of the kitchen staff. With Az out the front, his lovely wife Kirti is heading up the kitchen along with a high proportion of ladies. I have a lot of respect for a place that champions a female workforce and they clearly know what they are doing here. I'll never know why there isn't a stronger female representation in restaurant kitchens, then again the percentage of women graphic designers in senior roles is pretty slim too! Where do we all go eh?!

The one thing I wasn't keen on was the interior. The fluro orange PU covered booths, blue lighting, gloss white stools and pastel stripe wallpaper are probably more suited to a hybrid gelateria nightclub rather than authentic Indian restaurant. There's a real mash of styles here and whilst I don't think Indian restaurants need to be plastered with images of elephant Gods and the like, it may not help in communicating what they are about to passing custom. Which is a shame. But sat right at the front, it was lovely to see their vast range of customers leaving so happily, pats on the back, smiles and waves. Some are clearly very well looked after regulars that all neighbourhood restaurants should try and cultivate.

Although we are reasonably spoilt with some great Indian food in Brighton, with a lot of love for the Chilli Pickle and Curry Leaf Cafe, Azaro is definitely worth a look too and particularly handy for those Hove way. 

azaro.co.uk
115 Church Road
Hove BN3 2AF

I was invited to review Azaro. Words and thoughts, as always, my own.

REVISIT & REVIEW: GB1 at The Grand, Brighton



It has been a while since my last visit to GB1 and although the quality of restaurants in Brighton has improved quite a lot in three years, it was nice to still be impressed with the venue of this restaurant, which is part of the glamorous Grand hotel. Brighton still falls very short of fine dining options in the city and whilst I love our quirky and low-key attitude, sometimes I just want a bit more formality. Pressed table cloths, well weighted cutlery, high ceilings and dammit, someone serving me that is wearing a matching pair of socks and doesn't have facial tattoos.  

Here, its all shiny marble, with a magnificent central bar that you can prop up with an ostentatious seafood platter and a bucket of champagne. This time I was seated in the sea-view conservatory but this was just as pleasant.


I think I'm there with oysters now. I believe you can train yourself to like certain foods and I really struggled with them before. Every time I see them, I order one, goaded by my oyster loving husband. This time I genuinely enjoyed them with the dressings. The education I got at English's of Brighton certainly helped and I'm training myself to like the squidgy Mersea variety next.


Scallops were plump and sweet and the Asian influence of mirin, sesame and coriander complimented them beautifully. They were not undercooked either (pet hate). Regular readers will know my feelings of slate and I was really disappointed to see them served on this glorified building material, along with the irritating little mini fryer baskets. Now these items have filtered down to chain pubs and the like, it cheapens the presentation and felt a little dated and lazy. It just jars with the rest of the surroundings and concept. Shame.


The whitebait could have been crisper but the spice added to the coating was a nice touch.




My brill was indeed brill (soz). It's a heavy, meaty beast with sweet, firm flesh and a bit like its more expensive cousin, Turbot. Served simply grilled, the natural flavour was allowed to shine through and I enjoyed the lot. I added some samphire and bacon as well as a pea, cashew and coriander pesto. Although the GB1 "favourites" including THE lobster burger are all complete, the sides, sauces and extra shellfish for the fish and meat grills are priced separately, which is fine, but you do run the risk of concocting a strange meal.


The huge portion of Moules Mariniere went down well enough too. When is cream, butter and wine never a good idea? My bread head husband wanted some to mop this up and we had to order the bread and popcorn on the menu to get this. Personally I'm not sure why anyone would require bread and popcorn together but the scallop dust on the corn was really interesting, but maybe with a beer at home. 

Wines weren't as pricey as you'd expect. You can go to town here obviously, but there are plenty of options that are affordable and by the carafe or glass. The crisp, fruity Sauvignon Blanc that was recommended, was perfect with the meal.


The desserts here are clearly still very good, I remember being particularly impressed with them last time. I ordered a beautiful orange panna cotta, which tasted as good as it looked. Thick, smooth, silky and decedent with a perfectly pitched citrus flavour and the decoration, for once, accented the dish. The sharp dehydrated raspberries and the small cubes of chocolate cake were unexpected but worked really well and pistachio always loves orange and added another layer of texture. I usually struggle with dessert choice, not having much of a sweet tooth and never wanting chocolate, but here there were plenty of options I would have happily ordered. 

Service is super slick and so much better than my last visit which was quite anxious, like everyone had just completed a huge flip chart training course or been given an almighty bollocking prior to hitting the floor. We were given a choice of tables (being really fussy about seating is one of my many quirks, so this appealed), referred to by name as we were seated, given a little ticket for the cloakroom and all with a friendly but smart delivery.

There seems to be this need for restaurants to have a quirk or a concept now but I still think it's good to have dining options that are special in the traditional sense. The good food here will appeal to a wide range of diner and has enough interesting tweaks and detail without going too far. You'll need to dig a little deeper than your pocket money to dine here but it's well priced for the quality and setting. If you haven't already, I say dust off your finest and head on down there.

GB1 at The Grand
97-99 King's Rd
Brighton BN1 2FW

I booked via Open Table which was a simple interface and no need to register if you don't want to. Plus my booking had obviously worked and the email reminders were handy. They also offer gift cards. Who doesn't want the gift of food? Exactly. 

This post was sponsored by Open Table. Words and thoughts, as always, are my own. 

REVIEW: Bincho Yakitori, Brighton


I'm probably a bit late to the party here. Bincho Yakitori opened in Brighton a year ago to nothing short of fanfare. Modelled on a Japanese izakaya, a casual bar with food, this restaurant has an unusual background, beginning in London's glossy OXO Tower, then transferring to a hip Soho location before settling in er, Brighton's Preston Street.

The ethos is also pretty low-key: "We won't waste your time or your money on unnecessary garnish". In the current restaurant landscape of borderline ridiculous flourishes and gratuitous presentation formats, I can totally get on board with these stripped back values.


But I didn't realise how much I have come to rely on nice details and environments for dining enjoyment. And if I'm honest, this is what has kept me from Bincho Yakitori. The exterior looks like a a cross between a pawn shop and martial arts studio and being on Brighton's "restaurant street" with all of its illuminated perspex and laminated picture menus isn't exactly a bonus. The interior sits somewhere between being achingly cool and a touch scruffy. It's very minimal, dark, with walls covered in blackboard paint and chalk scrawls. Pictures of ambiguous Japanese urban scenes printed on thin, high street canvases are dotted around the walls. The area at the front with the open kitchen is far more attractive than the back. I don't know, somehow it has a charm about it but that line is painfully thin. 

But I couldn't ignore the feedback on the food, particularly from quite a lot of the local chefs. It seems this is where they like to eat and praise from chefs for another restaurant doesn't exactly come easy!


The menu is formed from a variety of small plates, mainly grilled skewers (Yakitori) and prices hover around £4 per dish.


Armed with a group of friends, this is an ideal way to sample a decent bulk of the menu. Everything, and I mean everything, was good with quite a few exceptional plates. Even the grisly and gruesome, the skewers of chicken skins and hearts, were genuinely enjoyable. I know eating gross cuts has become somewhat of a sport amongst true gourmands, but I have a line but here I was willing to cross it. Those skins and hearts were somehow transformed into tasty and tender, prepared and handled expertly so textures pleased rather than offended.


Amongst the crowd pleasers were the pork belly yakitori, the most acceptable of the fatty cuts. They were rendered beautifully, moist and melting. These got a second order as did the plates of crisp Japanese fried chicken and sweet, sticky Korean chicken wings.

Chicken balls (that is, balls made from chicken meat) were made more interesting with a dipping egg yolk. I didn't get a look in on the two rounds of lamb chops or the salmon and squid, but they looked the part and were devoured in no time.

Although you can easily go crazy on the protein, do give the vegetable dishes a look. The soft, sweet potato halves were gorgeous, brushed with a miso butter. A seaweed salad with salmon sashimi was generous and interesting and sweetcorn loves grills so this is a must order here.


The sake flight was recommended to me and I say try it too. I have limited knowledge in this area so was fun to try three varieties. You are given an entry level sake, drinkable and pleasant, a cloudy unfiltered variety which was my favourite - milky, full of flavour. Finally was the premium sake, whose name translates as "beautiful girl from the south". This highest grade sake was super clean, refined and delicate. Sake sure has a new fan in me.

Service was welcoming and as friendly as it gets, yet well informed to guide you knowledgeably through the menu.

I didn't expect to like Bincho Yakitori much. On paper, it's not really my bag but I'll confidently say it's one of the best restaurants in Brighton, even after one visit (don't worry, I'll be going back again and again). The quality, care and craft of the food is as good as it gets so who the hell cares about presentation or how well weighted the cutlery is. It's both interesting and different for Brighton (as well as seriously well priced) which when you consider the diverse dining scene we have now, makes it really rather hot little ticket.

binchoyakitori.com
63 Preston St, Brighton BN1 2HE

RECIPE: Griddled radicchio


Red radicchio is one of my favourites. Slightly tricky to find but if you do, this is so worth trying. Griddling softens and sweetens its typically bitter taste so is an ideal cooking method if you aren't enjoying it raw. You can then dress the cooked radicchio with lemon juice or better, with real balsamic of Modena. The thick, sweet and rich stuff.

1 radicchio head, cut into quarters lengthways, retaining the base and core to keep it together.
olive oil
sea salt flakes (I love Maldon)
Lemon juice or aged balsamic of modena 

Heat the griddle pan on a high heat. Brush the raddichio quarters in olive oil and grill on each side until softened and slightly crisp on the edges.

Remove and allow to cool a little. Dress with more olive oil, sea salt flakes and either lemon juice or balsamic of modena. 

Serve warm or at room temperature.

REVIEW: Franco Manca, Brighton


Back in the day, Mr GF and I used to hop on the train to Brixton, just to visit the small, shack-like eatery that was Franco Manca. Yes, you had to queue for an age before being unceremoniously ushered onto a corner of a table to quickly eat a £5 pizza and a tumbler of house wine. By the time you factor in the train fare and journey, that £5 pizza was about £30 and 3 hours of waiting. But by heck was it worth it. Brighton was a total wasteland for pizza, firmly in the pineapple and ham on a pre-made base territory. (Luckily, today is a different story with a handful of really good independent pizzerias.)

Fast forward to the Franco Manca of today, after a huge £27.5 million takeover by David Page (Mr Pizza Express) they have escalated to 20 odd locations with the Brighton branch being only the second outside of London. So I was really interested to see if the pizza was still as good as it used to be. (And believe me, I would turn up the Italian tantrum to 10 if I find they had started cutting holes in the centre to replace with a fricking salad.)


The fit out is gorgeous with enormous bi-fold windows that are spot on for the three annual hot, balmy nights we get in the UK. The tiles are total Instagram "floofie" material and there's a really nice mash up of slick industrial materials and hand crafted decoration. (One thing I do like about the London chain invasion is that they bring a far higher quality environment with them. I do not want to see IKEA stickers on furniture when I'm dining out. Brighton clearly loves a bargain. )


Ordering starters when eating pizza is something I never really do. It's not really the done thing and starters generally are topped bread based things, far too similar to pizza. But the waitress mentioned burrata and God help my weaknesses. This beautiful, glossy, wobbly ball of cheese is packed with full fat cream and silky curds when you break into it. It's like the royal cousin of the humble mozzarella. I can't even express my love of this cheese, try it.

I liked the short menu here. Six pizzas, a couple of specials and a salad or two. Those expecting a pizza with an inch of sloppy sauce and piles of toppings on can go to the pre-theatre pizza pasta places locally. This is not what you are going to get here.




Bases are of the beautiful, pillowy soft Neapolitan kind. What I adore about Franco Manca pizza is the chew. Even though we have some decent pizza in town now (Fatto a Mano and Nuposto), the chew here is a dream. Discarding the crust (cornicione) here is a crime. Eat it all.


The delicious leaoparding - the black blisters and spots from the high heat of the wood oven, were in abundance and so tasty. Perfectly cooked with an ideal char on the underside, it was as good as the pizza back in the humble Brixton Market. Very occasionally, despite eye-watering investments, buyouts and the spirit of the business setting off into the sunset on a bit fat yacht, the quality of the product remains. And I'm happy to see that's the case here.

Toppings are secondary to the base in my book, but these were all great quality. My Napoli (tomato base, garlic, oregano, capers olives, anchovies and cheese) was precisely the amount I would want, well seasoned and tasty. Mr GF chose two types of chorizo (dry and semi-dry) and again, perfect ratio.


Dessert was worth ordering - I had a warm lemon and almond cake with honey and even though the sorbets was not anything to write home to Italy about, were nice enough. and refreshing

The prices here are remarkable really. Most expensive pizza is £6.95 (some in Brighton, particularly the takeaways, are starting to pip the £10 mark) and the drinks are also well selected and priced with bottles of good wine around £15 (I had zero issue enjoying my bottle share of the organic red). The only beer they had was their own No Logo bottles, which Mr GF (a bit of a beer boff) wasn't that taken with.


I think it's quite easy to be snobby about chain restaurants, but I'd have to agree with a comment on Twitter; "better an accessible, reliable chain than a flaky indie." I know we love to support our independents and we do have some good options for pizza, but there is certainly room for Franco Manca here and I have no issue sending it to the top of my Brighton pizza list. Plus it saves me a fortune in rail fare.

Franco Manca Brighton
Regent Street
Brighton
BN1 1UL

REVIEW: Rootcandi, Brighton



"Vegan" has had a bit of a makeover in the last couple of years. With far less dietary hangups, It's reinvention as "plant based", in many ways, has made it more accessible to a wider audience.

This new way of thinking, intentionally or not, is championed at Rootcandi. There's no mention or promotion of the "v" word to be found. And coming from the people behind the successful vegetarian Iydea cafe (which I'm a big fan of), they clearly know what they are doing. But don't expect heaped plates of black bean enchiladas served with a side order of dreadlocks here, Rootcandi is far more refined and inventive than the cafe. The core format is a choice of four small plate collections, each influenced by different global cuisines (Indian, Pan-Asian, South American and Modern European). You have the choice of picking and choosing individual plates but the sets seem to be well considered for a good mix.


Presentation is clearly important. Each dish is beautifully arranged and served on a bespoke spinning stand - even the lazy Susan has had a make over. But far more than just another presentation gimmick, this one is quite smart, taking all of that awkward plate passing and table space hogging that you have to contend with in sharing plates.

From the sets, we chose the Preston, with South American flavours. Faced with so many dishes, some were bound to stand out more that others but the highlights were the black bean fritters that had a great kick and the perfectly crisp tempura courgette fries. I have no idea why you would dehydrate then rehydrate a watermelon, removing its crisp, fresh USP to a fleshy, rubbery one but that was the weakest plate.

The aubergine tart's pastry could have been crispier and flakier but the flavour of the "ricotta", was there. This was however the only time I've really enjoyed plantain, served as little crisp fritters. Overall, the meal was enjoyable and interesting with plenty of details to discover.

Looking back at the menu, maybe one of the other sets would have been more exciting from a flavour point of view; I love pani puri and the oyster mushroom scallop, candied grapefruit and fennel salad and quinoa sushi from the other sets all really appeal. I certainly left with a taste of wanting more which is always a good sign.


The chocolate gananche tart ticked all of the dessert boxes. Decadent, sweet and rich with contraxing texture. The nut base with the silky chocolate was perfect and you can never have enough salted caramel sauce in your life.



My more sober coconut panna cotta on the other hand felt clean and healthy. Not what I particularly want in a dessert. Even reinvented, a panna cotta lives or dies by it's wobble and smoothness. This had neither really and was served in a pot rather than formed on the plate. Still, I'd happily put this away, just for breakfast next time.

Drink deserve a mention. I wish I had the constitution to handle the entire selection of cocktails because they were hard to choose from. I don't think I've ever seen a carrot and orange or a lavender and black pepper martini but I finally settled for an elegant and fresh cucumber and rose collins. The Earl Grey fizz could have been more refined in presentation but nice touch that the tea infused gin was homemade.



The recently extended space has been well designed. It feels special enough for an occasion but with enough quirky touches to keep it from being too formal.

Although Brighton is blessed with a good range of vegetarian restaurants, the concept and format here makes it quite unique. I can't see many people not being impressed with their meal and I'm sure as they evolve it will get even better. Whether you are vegan, vegetarian or not, Rootcandi has plenty of appeal.

rootcandi.co.uk
105 Western Road
Brighton BN1 2AA

I dined as a guest of Rootcandi. Words and thoughts, as always, are my own.