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.

RECIPE: Stuffed peppers with beef, lentils and chickpeas


Ah, the stuffed pepper. Are they not what you serve vegetarians when you can't think of anything else to give them (Come dine with Me contestants take heed)?

Actually no, I've been baking these more lately, they are a great vehicle to carry flavour as well as being a pretty convenient serving solution. I also love that sweet, mellow, squishiness once baked. Add that to the fact they are rammed with vitamins E and C (skin creams can only do so much to your face peeps).

The European Union have actually funded a campaign to educate the nation about the versatility and health benefits of peppers. You can find out more from itspeppertime.co.uk (I can't get Chico out of my head every time I think of it.)

Also on their site, they include a lot of recipe inspiration including what they call "Pepper pots" - stuffed pepper halves to you and me. The versatility of this is endless, but the recipe below is how I like to prepare them for my family.

Filled with beef and lentils this is a great combination of Iron and Vitamin C (which helps absorb Iron - bonus). The lentils also make the beef go further so economical as well as healthier. Texture, taste...it's all there as well as being so easy to prepare. Total mid-week hero.


Serves 4

4 peppers (red, orange or yellow are best)
1tbsp olive oil, plus more to rub over the peppers
Half an onion, finely chopped
2 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
400g lean minced beef
Half tsp chilli powder
Half tsp smoked paprika
1 tsp cumin
1 tsp ground coriander
400g tin chickpeas, drained ad rinsed
300g cooked green lentils (tinned and drained or better cooked from dried)
200g tomato passata
Seasoning

To serve: natural yogurt, salad leaves and fresh herbs (coriander or parsley are great)

Preheat the oven to 180C. Halve the peppers lengthways and deseed, rub the pepper surfaces in a little olive oil. Place on an ovenproof tray

Heat the oil in a frying pan. Add the onion and gently fry until translucent. Turn up the heat and add the beef and garlic. You want the meat to sizzle not stew. Break up the meat with a spoon as it cooks until evenly browned.

Add chilli powder, smoked paprika, cumin and ground coriander and cook for a minute. Then add the chickpeas, lentils, tomatoes. Season to taste.

Once cooked, spoon the beef into the pepper halves and place in the oven. Bake for 20 minutes for firmer peppers or up to 40 minutes if you like them squishy.

Let them rest for a few minutes, then serve with a dollop of natural yogurt, a side salad and plenty of chopped fresh herbs.

http://www.itspeppertime.co.uk/

I was sent products for this post by the campaign, content and thoughts, as always, my own.

How to prepare matcha tea


I don't have a great relationship with green tea or matcha. I knew it was good for me in some way (It's green, it must be right?) but goodness me, I just couldn't get down with the taste of it at all. Turns out that not all matcha is the same and I was just pouring boiling water on it like a good old cup of builders, scorching the stuff so it was bitter and chalky as I didn't realise how to prepare it properly.

Thankfully Brighton-based company, OMGtea (Organic Matcha Green Tea to you), have given me a bit of an education. What caught my interest was that the company comes from a really interesting background, it isn't just a tea company at all really. Founder Katherine Swift began research into green teas when her mother was diagnosed with cancer due to the beneficial health properties. As well as sourcing and selling premium, traceable matcha tea, OMGtea will also be supporting scientific and medical research into preventing degenerative disease and extending health and life span. They do this by donating a percentage of profits from sales to the Healthy Life Foundation.


Matcha being high in antioxidants, calming and detoxifying is resonably common knowledge but I had no idea it burns calories and is anti-ageing. And Lord knows I could do with better memory too. If the claims stack up, then I'm prescribing myself a cup of this daily, sod the face cream. I mean, matcha has 137 times more antioxidants and 10 times the nutritional benefit of regularly brewed green tea. If you are interested in the science then Google away my friend.

There are a few ways to prepare matcha, but the best way seems to be with the traditional bamboo whisk. I tried both a handheld milk frother and mini steel whisk but they just didn't break the matcha clumps as well as the fine bamboo.


How to prepare matcha tea
  1. Measure 1 tsp of matcha powder and sift it into a small bowl (you may not have enough space to whisk in a cup). 
  2. Add about a tablespoon of just off the boil water. Don't use boiling water!
  3. Using the bamboo whisk, mix the matcha into a paste using a "W" motion. 
  4. Once totally smooth with no clumps (seriously, DO NOT scrimp this step), add a little more water and whisk again to create a froth, then top up with water to finish your drink.
My favourite ways of using matcha



Although I like to drink this without milk, I also enjoy adding a dash of almond milk. For some reason milk alternatives taste better with matcha (almond, hazelnut, even coconut milks). The fattiness of cow's milk doesn't sit well with me for this.


On these hot days, instead of adding more hot water in step 4, I'll use cold almond or hazelnut milk then use a handheld milk frother to create foam and finally add ice cubes for a chilled latte. SO GOOD.


One of my favourite Jamie Oliver recipes is a Green Tea salmon with miso greens and coconut rice from his 15 minutes (or what I call, 30 Minutes and a Shedload of Washing Up) book. I used the OMGtea matcha instead and it definitely improved it.  I'll definitely be looking at cooking with matcha a lot more, with its mix of earthy and zesty notes.

Find out more and view the range at omgteas.co.uk

I was sent samples for review. Words and thoughts, as always, my own.

REVIEW: Wahaca, Brighton



Wahaca has been the long awaited opening that has got Brighton a bit excited. Thomasina Miers, who won Masterchef back in 2005, has built her empire of restaurants on her love of Mexican food and travel. It's a substantial chain that has seen one of the biggest successes from the show's winners.



The atmosphere here is fun, bright and lively. A mash up of graphic prints (back pat for the genius who found velour dogtooth bucket seats - you hero), neon, illustrations and type. Overall it does smack of chain restaurant as it's so slick and formulaic, but it has been very well done and a gold star for the bathroom too. A nice touch is that each of their locations features bespoke art from different creatives and in Brighton these are from Mexican street artist Mazatl. Hey, anyone that invests in creatives gets my vote.


Drinks are great. The large bar area is prime for those dropping in for booze, nibbles and a game of foosball. I enjoyed my pretty hibiscus Margarita and gin and tonic from the lengthy cocktail list. There's also fresh pressed juices, Mexican beer and quite extensive tequila menu with a selection of all three types; Blanco, Reposado and AƱejo. They are all 100% blue agave too unlike inferior brands that can contain just 50%. I wouldn't mind going back for the tequila flight to learn a little more even though I did go on a tequila bender with Clio Roccas* once, who is now a Tequileira, so have already been sold to the cause. This time though we opted for a sip of a super smooth and smoky Mezcal which you have to try.


The menu contains the tacos, tostadas, enchiladas and quesadillas you'd expect with both classic and modern interpretations. When I think of Mexican food I think of vibrant flavours, contrasting textures, acidity, heat... on the whole though the food was lacking those highlights and that punch. Most successful was the Pasilla chicken tacos that had good smoke from the chargrill and a decent level of heat in the (intentionally!) burnt habanero salsa. With a soft tortilla I like some crunch from a salad or radish which this had too.


The steak in the tacos was beautifully tender. The rest of the elements were simple but as the steak was so good, I didn't mind. 


Empanadas I adore. These were stuffed with an earthy mushroom and sweetcorn filling. The pastry could have been crisper, but were enjoyable none the less. Is cauliflower cheese a Mexican dish? No idea, but this was a pleasant side dish. Not much heat or the promised smoke, but fine. It's cauliflower cheese.



I was looking particularly forward to the raw salmon tostadas which looked the part but the lime and tamari were a no-show. The textures were all quite similar really and a bit slimy by nature. Again the sweet potato and feta Taquitos were not crispy and there were no discernible flavours coming through, maybe having too many elements so they became muddied. 

Service was as enthusiastic as an X Factor first audition. I was taken aback at first but really warmed to the bounding friendliness. Although I normally prefer things a little more low-key, it suits the fun style of the restaurant and the atmosphere. All the staff seemed really upbeat and welcoming and if they keep it up could be a real USP of this place.


Churros for dessert are a given. These were light and crisp. With chocolate and caramel sauce, I can't see who couldn't enjoy these. 

I don't get the spoons though. Horrible to eat with and to hold. If I'm out at a restaurant, the last thing I want to eat with is oversized toddler cutlery. The only thing this could be is a marketing hook (something about a spoon amnesty) but instead of stealing these for a free taco, next time I'll be bringing my own dessert cutlery from home. 

It's hard not to be overly critical of the London chains that are moving into Brighton. Many are fiercely anticipated and coming from the big smoke, you naturally put them on a pedestal. The super-hyped Polpo has so far been disappointing to many people I speak to, and I know I'm not the only one praying that Franco Manca (opening soon) remains true to their original quality and craft despite the big buy-out and expansion. MeatLiquor brought something quite new to the city and continues to thrive and I think Wahaca should also do really well here, the relaxed, fun and inexpensive nature suits the city and and we lack many large venue options.

I did enjoy my visit here, although I'd expected the food to be a little better, I'd certainly come back to make a bigger dent in the tequila menu and try some of the larger dishes.

Wahaca Brighton
North Street
Brighton

I dined as a guest of Wahaca. *This is my only shameless celebrity namedrop, I promise.