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Harris + Hoole, Twickenham

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Despite my love of Italy, it has to be said that when it comes to coffee, it’s an Antopidean coffee that does it for me: that strong punch of deeply rich coffee. My loyalties transferred to Australia-New Zealand about 4 years ago when I read in Time Out that the best coffee in West London was to be found at Taylor St Baristas in Richmond. One Flat White there and I was converted. That first Taylor St has recently become fully independent (under the same manager, now owner) and changed its name to Butter Beans, but Taylor St Baristas lives on in other branches serving its great artisan coffee. And the concept also lives on in a slightly changed form in Harris+Hoole, started up by the same three siblings who set up Taylor St, Laura, Nick and Andrew Tolley.

There are other differences. The Taylor St branches are small, independent coffee houses while the Harris+Hoole cafes are larger affairs, more akin to an upmarket Starbucks. The other big difference is that Harris+Hoole, while in one sense a ‘family company’ is actually 49% owned by Tesco, thus not exactly ‘independent’, and this connection has brought them lots of flak from people feeling they’ve been somehow cheated. But the connection is mentioned on the website and in reality Harris+Hoole are far removed from the main corporate coffee chains because they do sell good ‘artisan’ coffee. The name Harris+Hoole comes from two coffee-loving characters in The Diary of Samuel Pepys.

I have to say that when the Twickenham branch opened – a couple of years ago? – I was at first excited to find good Flat Whites made with Union coffee beans just down the road from me but it took a while for them to get their act together. The service could be appalling; the coffee too hot or too cold; and I hated the handheld pagers that would noisily vibrate when your coffee was ready and you had to go back to the counter to collect it with the offending item in your hand. In the end, I rarely went in. But of late, with Jonathan and Lyndsey’s little Yorkshire Terrier, Zeph, sometimes in tow, I’ve been going to my local Harris+Hoole because Zeph is not only welcomed but given a dog biscuit. They are dog friendly!

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They can afford to be in these large premises; it wouldn’t work in a small cafe, I know. But it is handy when you happen to have a dog and don’t always want to sit outside. I’m rather glad that Zeph has led me back for there have been lots of changes. The horrid pagers have gone and your coffee is brought to you in quiet times; your name called when busy. I tend to go in at quiet times so am not sure how things are when it’s really busy, but the coffee comes quickly now and is of the right temperature. Everyone is friendly and there is a community feel to the place that the Tolleys hoped to create. For instance, there is a large blackboard full of notices of local events and cards advertising local services of various kinds and there’s often live music, which is fun. I’ve passed by when there’s a jazz group playing and just missed them the other day, arriving as they were packing up.

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You can also buy coffee and tea to take home and a variety of coffee and tea items including coffee presses and filters.

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I went in quite early this morning and the counter was full of food, from sandwiches to cakes and both sweet and savoury muffins.

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Their croissants aren’t great but I had a gorgeous spinach and feta muffin there last week for a light lunch, and an excellent blueberry muffin one afternoon with a Flat White.

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It’s a place to meet people or pop into on your own. There are communal benches at the back, armchairs and sofas, and more traditional tables and chairs. Across the window at the front is a long counter with stools where I like to sit on warm summer days when it’s opened right out and you can catch a breeze – even if slightly polluted in the middle of Twickenham! You can see their ‘book swap’ in the photo below, too. Bring along an old book and swap it for another!

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And of course – and most importantly! – there is the coffee. Served in nice ‘earthy’ cups, it’s a good brew and good taste made from Union Hand Roasted beans.

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I’m pleased to have rediscovered my local Harris+Hoole, in finer shaper than my early visits. It’s only a 10-minute walk from my house and ideal when I’ve less time available (i.e. rather than going into Richmond) or I want to do some local shopping. And, of course, it’s ideal when I have Zeph!

 

 

Courgette, Lemon & Mint Risotto with Toasted Pine Nuts

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It’s been a long time since I’ve had to think about cooking regular family meals but with Jonathan and Lyndsey staying with me at the moment, I’ve had to take my turn and come up with something reasonably easy and inexpensive for midweek supper. And something that also contains or is served with meat. While Lyndsey and I would happily eat a vegetable risotto on its own as a main meal, Jonathan likes meat too. I’ve been out in the evening a lot over the last week or two, and they sometimes cook for me, but when it’s my turn it reminds me of how it used to be when my son and daughter were school kids and I had to come up with a plan of what to cook each evening. I always cooked. I didn’t resort to ready-made meals. But the somewhat relentless need to come up with a plan every night was more difficult for me than the actual cooking. Once I’d decided what we were having there was no problem; I’ve always liked to cook, but that constant question of ‘what shall we eat tonight?’ could, on a busy day, be the source of some frustration. I know for a time I slipped into cooking certain meals on certain evenings – always Bolognese on Fridays, for instance – and Nicola and Jonathan would tease me that they could tell the day of the week simply by what food I put before them! If this sounds a little complaining, I don’t mean it that way. I loved the family meals and when they brought friends home and a few of us would sit round the dining table it was great. But coming up with something to cook every night was a bit of a challenge!

Most of the time, living alone, I only have myself to think of. I might fancy fish and pick up a piece of salmon from Sandys while I’m out and about in Twickenham high street. I’ll look in my fridge and see lots of tomatoes and make a fresh tomato sauce to go with pasta; or think that half-pack of mushrooms would make a nice risotto. Cooking for others is usually a more special affair for me nowadays and I’ll enjoy the process of thinking about what to cook; I’ll spend time looking through cookbooks and not worry too much about cost. I’m usually ready to spend quite a lot of time in the kitchen preparing it, often trying out new recipes for the blog. Fortunately, I find cooking very restful. Today, after what’s been quite a busy working day (albeit from home), it was actually a pleasure to stand by my cooker and slowly stir a risotto for our supper. The courgette idea came from the simple fact of having some in the fridge! A leftover from our Able & Cole organic vegetable box delivery. Lemon and mint go well with courgettes and I got the idea of sprinkling over some toasted pine nuts at the end from a Angela Hartnett recipe. The meat could be at the side, I decided, and I found some nice lamb steaks on offer in Waitrose so it turned out to be quite a reasonably priced midweek supper too!

Should I dice or grate the courgettes? The lovely Mimi grated them in a risotto on her blog last week (www.chefmimiblog.com); Angela Hartnett grates them too but Antonio Carluccio dices his. I went with grating.

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The first thing I did was get out some chicken stock from the freezer, transfer it into a saucepan and leave it on a low heat to thaw and heat up. Luckily, there’s a good supply of Jonathan’s home-made stock in containers. Then I grated the courgettes (I had 2 large ones) and left them draining in a sieve with a little salt.

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Next I finely sliced 2 shallots and put them with a crushed clove of garlic into a large pan with some olive oil and large knob of butter. I gently fried for a little to soften the shallots a bit then tossed in a large mug of risotto rice.

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I stirred the rice round to coat in the oil and slightly toast the rice then added a good glug of white wine. I let this bubble away and then started adding the hot stock ladleful by ladleful, stirring all the time. This is the good bit. This is the time of slowing down and relaxing. The more slowly and gently you take this step, the more creamy and wonderful your risotto will be. Risotto needs love; it’s not a fast food! Although it really doesn’t take that long to make. When the rice is almost cooked add the grated courgettes and stir in well.

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Now grate in the zest of half a lemon and stir. Allow to finish cooking – until most of the liquid is absorbed and the rice cooked, but retaining a slight bite. Check seasoning. Turn off the heat. Add another good knob of butter, about 1 tablespoon chopped fresh mint and grate over a nice helping of Parmesan.

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Stir well and put the lid on the saucepan and leave to rest for a couple of minutes before serving. To serve, put spoonfuls of the risotto on to a warm plate, drizzle over a little olive oil, grate over some more Parmesan and then scatter some toasted pine nuts on top. I served it with some griddled lamb steaks but would have been very happy to eat the risotto on its own.

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It’s always great to have an appreciative audience. And there was lots of happy appreciation from my two guests. Jonathan said it was ‘outstanding’ and he was definitely going to cook it himself. I think grating the courgettes was definitely better than dicing them would have been, but the really special ‘effect’ was the addition of the lemon and mint. Both flavours shone through beautifully and gave a wonderful freshness to the dish. Everything married well and it was one of those dishes I was really pleased with myself, which made it all the more delightful to have cooked.

A Visit to Hanbury Hall, Worcestershire

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I went up to Birmingham to visit my daughter, Nicola, over the weekend. We’re both members of the National Trust and so yesterday decided we’d visit a Trust house and gardens near to where she lives. The weather was a bit mixed. It had definitely been rather autumnal in Birmingham on Saturday but Sunday was a little better. Visiting a house and gardens gave the option of going inside during any rain showers.

Nicola had been to Hanbury Hall before – it’s a great place for a walk even if you don’t want to go into the house with lovely gardens and an excellent tea room. About a half-hour drive from Birmingham, we travelled into Worcestershire and through some pretty villages. The hilly terrain gave us wonderful views at times despite the dull weather and some rather ominous dark clouds. We’d had an abortive attempt to find me a coffee somewhere en route – unlike London, cafes didn’t seem to open for Sunday breakfast. Thus, by the time we’d parked up at Hanbury Hall, just after 10.30, our first instinct was to head straight for the cafe and sustenance. You really don’t want to be around me anytime my morning coffee is late in coming!

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Hanbury Hall’s new tea rooms – Chambers – has taken inspiration from the lawyer Thomas Vernon who built the house in 1701. They serve morning coffee, light lunches and afternoon tea.

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There was a good choice of food and drink and friendly staff. They use products from their vegetable gardens and so there were things like Beetroot chocolate fudge cake – which was also ‘cake of the month’ and a recipe available – to a lovely ginger cake with plums on top, which I chose.

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My coffee addiction would have been better satisfied by asking for an extra shot in my cappuccino but the cake was lovely, as was Nicola’s chocolate and raspberry scone. The tea room looks out on to the formal gardens.

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We’d booked a free ‘taster’ tour of the house and made our way there next. Our friendly and informed tour guide, Len, gave us the history of the house and the Vernon family who built and owned it for 250 years until it was passed to the National Trust in 1953. It was a fun thing to do.

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An interesting story for cat lovers was that Doris Vernon owned 25 Maine Coon cats (huge cats!) and we were shown early cat flaps –  smaller windows within large windows that could be opened to let the cats in or out. When we came out we wandered off to explore other areas of the gardens. We visited the vegetable garden and orchards. There was a stall full of lovely fruit and veg that you could choose and then pop your money into the honesty box. I bought some wonderful yellow lemon cucumbers that looked like small squashes but definitely tasted of cucumber when I put them in a salad in the evening.

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There were chickens, beehives and an old mushroom house – a dark old, cold house where mushrooms were once grown but seemed to now be used for storage. The old dairy was being restored.

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And there was an ice house too – a huge deep pit, now empty, but once full of ice – 24 tonnes of it! – in the days before fridges and freezers. Even though there was no ice there now, we still felt how much colder it was as we entered a tunnel that led through to the pit.

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We came across a beautiful meadow of wild flowers near the orchards, which were full of apple and pear trees heavy with ripening fruit.

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As lunchtime approached we were joined by Rachael and we went into a small cafe near the shop where we ordered sandwiches and cold drinks. The sandwiches were made to order on lovely fresh granary bread. My coronation chicken sandwich was excellent: a deep filling, good chunks of chicken and a lovely spicy ‘coronation’ curry mayonnaise.

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At this point the rain came back. Fortunately it wasn’t heavy and we just moved our lunch on to another table under a large umbrella. I was really pleased to find a dwarf pomegranate tree in the shop. I’ve been looking for a pomegranate tree for ages. I’m not sure how fast it will grow or whether it will ever produce any pomegranates but I’m really pleased to have it, and it will also remind me of a lovely weekend.

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Nicola bought one too and the kind shop assistant offered to keep them safe for us while we went for a walk across the fields and up a hill to the church. Although the rain had stopped, it was still chilly and grey. Even the sheep were taking shelter under a tree.

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There was a touch of the gothic novel in approaching the church with heavy dark clouds hanging over it.

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We’d walked up for the view and even in the drab weather, it was still worth the climb. Nicola pointed out the Malvern Hills in the distance.

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Then the rain came again, pretty heavily this time, and we were forced to take cover for a short time until it petered out and we could retrace the path across the fields, past the sheep, and back to Hanbury Hall. We’d had a really great visit and I’m sure if I lived close by I’d go there a lot – for walks, fruit and vegetables and the lovely food in the cafes. Now it was time to head back to Rachael’s house – only 15 minutes away – for a cup of tea and short rest before heading back down to London via a couple of hours’ drive on the M40.

 

The Oxo Tower Brasserie

IMG_6631I hadn’t been to the Oxo Tower for years. We came to it via a circular route: I read about a good deal on Bookatable but then it turned out you either had to eat before 5pm or after 10. Mmm. Not very social hours. However, the seed laid, and the possibility discussed with Annie, we decided we both wanted to go anyway and would do a la carte. And Jerry came too, which was great, so it was the three of us.

For me, it’s an easy 10-minute walk from Waterloo station to the Oxo Tower along the South Bank. It’s a fun area with lots going on and lots to see but the heavens opened as I arrived, which seemed a shame when my restaurant choice for the night offered one of the best views in London. I went in early, not wanting to hang around outside in the bad weather, and when the rain died down, went out on to the balcony to take in that view.

IMG_6635Well, it’s still pretty good! Even in bad weather. The restaurants are on the 8th floor: the Brasserie to one side of the lifts, the more formal Restaurant the other. There’s also a bar which was busy when I arrived with people obviously meeting there after work for cocktails. The brasserie was busy. It has the relaxed air you’d expect from the name: tables quite close together, things informal. But not the service. Right from the start the service was friendly and efficient; very professional. Orders for drinks were taken, excellent bread brought, pots of cold butter. Jerry suggested a bottle of a Lodi Old Vine Zinfadel from California for our wine: it was delicious, beautifully soft and smooth. We all chose different things for our starters. Jerry went for some bresaola with fried goats’ cheese, white peach and orange truffle honey; Annie for za’atar spiced quail. I was going to have the Parmesan panna cotta but made a last-minute switch to Middle Eastern Spiced Chickpea Salad.

IMG_6639This looks quite spectacular (as did all dishes). The chickpeas were on a bed of labneh; across the top lay a ‘brick’ which turned out to be a kind of thin, crispy pancake filled with ricotta. It was hot spicy; lots of chilli. But I like that so it was OK. The whole thing was wonderful and a great start to the meal.

Annie and Jerry went vegetarian with their main course, choosing Buffalo milk burrata with aubergine, artichoke, courgette and black olive almond crumble.

IMG_6644I chose fish, as I often do when I’m out; one of my very favourite kinds of fish – sea bass.

IMG_6643This dish had an Asian influence with bak choy, aubergine, Enoki mushrooms, shallot ginger dressing and nori oil. This kind of flavouring goes really well with fish. The whole thing looked beautiful and this was definitely a time when the taste matched up to the promise in appearance. It was a fabulous dish. The fish was perfectly cooked with a crispy skin but gorgeously soft and tender inside. The accompaniments married beautifully, enhancing the flavour of the fish but not overwhelming its delicacy.

Annie decided she was too full for dessert but thankfully Jerry wanted one so I didn’t have to feel guilty about going to a third course! I didn’t need anything else but the choices were so tempting! Jerry had White chocolate coconut cherry mouse, which looked a bit like a deconstructed Black Forest gateau. It was, Jerry said, very good.

IMG_6647My choice was Green tea cake with kaffir lime leaf ice cream.

IMG_6648It looked pretty but was unfortunately slightly disappointing. The cake a little dry and the whole thing not quite as wonderful and tasty as expected. But overall, we’d had a brilliant meal. And what a view from my seat!

IMG_6651It really was spectacular: a clear view of St Paul’s and we’d also watched a lovely sunset. We finished with coffees and then went out on to the balcony on our way out to take in the view better.

IMG_6653Not a very good quality photo, I’m afraid, but at least it gives you the idea! And shows that eating at the Oxo Tower is a brilliant experience when you can have such wonderful food as well as a fabulous views of London. Everything came together to make a great evening out: the view of course, a good buzzy atmosphere, live music and an exciting menu. Exciting food because everything was just a little different: tempting combinations that excited the tastebuds and made you feel you’d like pretty much anything on offer. It had been a long time since any of us had been there but we certainly won’t be leaving it such a long time until we return!

Oxo Tower Restaurant, Bar and Brasserie on Urbanspoon

Honey & Whisky Ice Cream

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This is definitely one for the grown-ups; grown-ups who love whisky and honey. Rich, deep in flavour and quite alcoholic, you could almost apply the description tira-mi-su – pick-me-up – but unlike the Italian dessert of that name, this one has Scottish overtones. It was my son’s idea. Perhaps it came from seeing the bottle of Chivas Regal sitting on my dining table, a gift from the cocktail and canapé pairing event with Chivas Brothers I went to a few weeks’ ago. Chivas Regal 12 Year Old Whisky has been described as a whisky ‘for grown-ups … a very refined blended whisky with herbs, honey and fruit’ so the honey addition was likely to work well. I guess some people might think it sacrilege to ‘waste’ it on ice cream but the thing about cooking with alcohol is that you only get really good results if you use really good ingredients. Yesterday, with Jonathan cooking the main part of the evening meal it seemed a good opportunity for me to turn my attention to dessert and the ‘honey and whisky ice cream’ was born.

Jonathan and I discussed the making of the ice cream. When you love food and cooking, discussion about how to cook something is part of the pleasure. If I started with my basic ice cream recipe, should I substitute all or half the sugar with honey? Should we add vanilla? How much whisky would be right? In the end, I used the equivalent amount of honey as I’d normally use sugar and we added the whisky once the custard was made, testing as we went until it seemed right. Of course, adding it at the end means the whisky retains its alcohol (hence an ice cream for grown-ups) and you have to also remember that spirits don’t freeze so too much will stop the ice cream ‘setting’, but an advantage is that when you get it right, it stays nicely soft.

First of all I made the vanilla ice cream: I put 6 egg yolks, 1 teaspoon custard powder (to stabilise the custard when cooking) and 1 teaspoon vanilla paste into a bowl and whisked till creamy. Then I added 8 tablespoons runny honey (120ml and equivalent to the 120g of sugar I normally use) and whisked some more until it was all well combined. The honey I used has quite a strong flavour; remember the honey you choose to use will affect the final flavour of the ice cream.

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I heated 300ml milk till bubbles appeared at the edge, then slowly poured it into the egg mixture, whisking until smooth, and tipped it all into a clean saucepan. Over a medium heat, I stirred until the custard came almost to the boil and was thickened (using the custard powder – or cornflour – enables you to do this without risk of the mixture separating). I poured it back into a bowl and left to cool completely before adding 300ml double cream, whisked until just thickening but not stiff.

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Now it was time to add the whisky. I added 3 tablespoons; Jonathan tasted and said it needed a little more – so it was 4 tablespoons whisky in all.

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Now for the final stage: pour the mixture into an ice-cream maker and churn until thick. Transfer to a freezer container and freeze until needed.

The weather was turning as suppertime approached. The balmy evenings we’ve been enjoying for weeks, sitting comfortably outside in the garden until darkness falls, have been overtaken by the tail end of Hurricane Bertha. Lyndsey and I sat outside with aperitifs while Jonathan barbecued chicken and halloumi but as the wind got up and dark clouds filled the skies, we decided to move inside to eat the meal. Jonathan had prepared a wonderful aubergine dish to go with the meat and halloumi – aubergine cubes gently fried in olive oil with a tahini dressing, pomegranate and coriander.

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When it came to dessert we scooped creamy mounds of whisky and honey ice cream into glass dishes. ‘We’ because I put some in the dishes and Jonathan topped them up with an extra scoop!

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It’s really a quite wonderful ice cream. Indulgently rich and creamy with the caramel taste of dark honey and a deep, warming glow of whisky; it both warms and cools you at the same time. And yes, it’s a sophisticated taste that’s definitely one for the grown-ups!

Opera a Tavola at Carluccio’s Caffe, Wimbledon

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OK. I know I’m on a bit of a Carluccio’s roll here with two Carluccio posts in a row. I promise they don’t pay me. I almost decided not to write about tonight. But I took my camera just in case, and as soon as we sat down after a warm welcome with a glass of prosecco and I looked at the menu and music programme for the evening, I knew it was going to be too good not to write about.

I was in Spain when I got Carluccio’s e-newsletter and information about the evening. I emailed my friend Lesley; were she and Colin interested? She booked for us; I offered to drive. Wimbledon from Twickenham isn’t far – but it’s a nightmare by public transport. I’ve been to ‘opera a tavola’ – opera singing while you eat –  before but not for many years; again, it was in an Italian restaurant. Which makes sense. No one loves opera like the Italians. A welcoming glass of prosecco with canapés plus three courses for £35 with live music seemed an offer too good to miss. The restaurant soon filled up as we sipped our prosecco and canapés were brought round.

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There was one song with our aperitivo before the starter arrived: Homemade chilled tomato and cucumber soup with fresh basil leaves.

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This was a nice, fresh start to the meal and was followed by four more songs before we were served our main courses. The music was provided by Opera d’Amici. Founded in 2001 by Hannah Kirk, this is a group of highly experienced singers from companies such as Covent Garden, English National Opera and D’Oyly Carte. They say they are a company of friends who come together to share their love and passion for what they do and perform in a variety of different venues and settings. Our singers for the evening were Hannah herself and Daniel Meades, accompanied on the piano by Peter Crockford. The programme was an eclectic mix of songs and arias from Verdi (Tosca and La Traviata) and Puccini (La Boheme); Bernstein (West Side Story) and Gershwin (Porgy and Bess); to lighter stuff from shows such as ‘Showboat’ and ‘Phantom of the Opera’. Their voices were wonderful and it was exciting and a real pleasure to enjoy their singing in such a small and intimate setting (the Wimbledon Carluccio’s isn’t particularly large). They seemed to really be enjoying themselves and engaged in a good way with the audience – who were very appreciative of this musical treat. We three thought we might have preferred a little more opera but I guess they try to accommodate all musical tastes and also the setting calls for quite a number of lighter songs, I think.

Our main course was a delicious lamb dish: Roasted rack of lamb with herbs and extra virgin olive oil crust, served with chargrilled vegetables and couscous.

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We were a little surprised the vegetables were cold but they tasted good and the couscous was a salad too, and also good. The lamb was particularly excellent – and hot! – cooked to perfection: pink inside and very tender; the flavours of the herb crust had permeated the meat beautifully. This was followed by another five songs before the dessert was brought: Carluccio’s own ‘gelati artigianali’ – vanilla and chocolate ice cream. It was lovely gelato and a nice – and very Italian! – way to finish the meal.

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We then had the final five songs from Opera d’Amici; these were lighter songs on which to end. I was pulled to my feet by Daniel for him to sing ‘On the Street’ from My Fair Lady directly to me and dance a few steps. It was fun – no one has ever sung to me before! – but I did feel slightly embarrassed to be the almost centre of attention. Thank goodness it was too dark to see my blushes. They finished with ‘Champagne’ from Die Fledermaus and we were encouraged to lift our glasses and join in.

Daniel Meades and Hannah Kirk from Opera d'Amici

Daniel Meades and Hannah Kirk from Opera d’Amici

It was such a joyous way to finish: everyone singing along and happy. It was a fantastic end to what had been a great evening of wonderful music and lovely food. We three loved the whole event. If you’re interested in finding out about more of Carluccio’s opera evenings look at: www.carluccios.com/events.

Carluccio’s Caffe, Covent Garden, London

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When I was at Carluccio’s party for their Christmas 2014 press release recently, it occurred to me that while I frequently speak of my affection for Carluccio’s Caffe and talk about how I always buy their wonderful orrechiette and trofie pasta, have a strong addiction to their Baci di Dama biscuits from Piedmont, and like to buy my olives and many other things from them, I’ve never actually reviewed one of their cafes on the blog. It’s strange because I do actually go to them quite often. Most usually my local branch in Richmond; quite often the Brunswick Centre branch when going to the Renoir Curzon cinema. But one of my favourites is the Covent Garden branch and so when I went there last night, I decided it was definitely time to take a few food photos and write a post on the blog.

On the corner of Garrick Street and King Street, it’s a brilliant location near the Piazza, the Opera House and West End theatres. I was there last night on my way to Wyndham’s Theatre to see the stunning revival of David Hare’s SKYLIGHT with Jonathan and Lyndsey. I saw the original production of the play back in 1995 at the National Theatre and we were all looking forward to seeing this latest production with Carey Mulligan and one of my favourite actors, Bill Nighy. It was all as brilliant as we’d expected, lighting our conversation on the way home as we discussed  the play. Jonathan did note in the interval that he was very pleased we’d gone to Carluccio’s for a pre-theatre rather than post-theatre meal for Carey Mulligan cooks a spaghetti dish onstage during the play and the smell of onions, carrots, garlic and chilli enticingly wafts across the auditorium and if you were hungry, I’m sure it might prove a distraction!

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One of the things I really love about the Covent Garden Carluccio’s is the building. It’s much bigger than most branches and on two floors. There’s a wonderful staircase leading up to two large dining areas on the first floor, with high ceilings, huge windows, lovely frescoes on walls and a space that fills me with romantic ideas of what a glorious apartment one could make there, right in the heart of Covent Garden. It was light and airy, a calm and welcome escape from the crowded streets and heat outside, and we were given a table by the window looking out on to Garrick Street.

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As we were heading to the theatre and had limited time, we decided to have the Menu Fisso at £10.95 for 2 courses, plus an extra £3.50 for a dessert; Sicilian wine is offered with the menu at just £3.95 for a 175ml glass. We weren’t very imaginative in our choice of starters as we all chose Bruschetta with fresh tomatoes on garlicky chargrilled bread. It was delicious.

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We were more adventurous with our main courses, each choosing a different one. Jonathan chose Milanese di Pollo, which is his usual choice: some flattened breaded chicken breast with salad.

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My choice was Pasta alla Puttanesca: a spicy tomato sauce with olives, capers and anchovies, and one of my favourite pasta dishes. It was really good.

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We’d arrived much earlier than planned so had plenty of time … in other words, plenty of time to have dessert too! Lyndsey chose Panna Cotta while Jonathan and I couldn’t resist Tiramisu. It’s one of our favourite desserts and I always use an Antonio Carluccio recipe.

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We finished with coffee, and I like Carluccio’s coffee. It has a good flavour and I chose their more robust Napoli blend for an espresso.

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The service had been excellent throughout: friendly and efficient. The final bill for the three of us – a 3-course meal plus wine and coffee – came to £60, which is brilliant value. And it was a perfect meal and perfect location for our theatre visit.

Carluccio's Covent Garden on Urbanspoon

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