Loft, St Albans

Published in The Herts Advertiser 18 Jan 2018

duckGeorge Street and the ‘Cathedral Quarter’ is becoming quite the destination for restaurants and bars. Busy Dylan’s, Per Tutti and Suckerpunch have created a new buzz about the area, and locals know to head away from the main roads with the chains to the more atmospheric parts of town for something interesting to eat.

Nick Male pass pic

The latest addition is Loft, tucked away off George Street in the courtyard with Thirty Nine 10 wine shop and Little Viking Vintage, in the roof space where 4 Nations used to be. Louise and Nick Male moved to St Albans a few years ago to raise their family, and used to own The Larder in Clerkenwell. Chef Nick was also Executive Chef at Conran Restaurants and Head of Food Development for Harrods.

Follow the lanterns up the stairs to find the stylish restaurant, which makes the most of the 600-year old building with its exposed beams and lovely brickwork. The Scandi furniture looks great in the space. There is a small copper bar area for pre-dinner drinks (there is usually space early in the week and lunchtimes for just drinks and bar snacks), and there is a nice edit of cocktails and gins.

Nick’s food is modern British in style, with a short, well-planned menu. The set menu is available at lunch during the week and early evening (until 7.30 midweek and 7 at weekends), at 19.50 for two courses. Starters include smoked salmon, with beetroot and horseradish sauce, or potato gnocchi with mushrooms and churned butter. Mains include burrata with butternut squash. We ordered across the menus as we were in at lunch time: my tuna tartare with olive crumble and tomato bread from the bar snack menu was served at the perfect temperature and had a great flavour. The poached egg, chorizo and garlic jam on toast and the chicken breast with pumpkin and charred leek from the set menu were both well-presented and generous. I really liked the thick griddled slices of pumpkin with the delicious sauce with the chicken. Nick said that he will be changing the menu with the seasons.

Loft interior

The main menu served in the evenings includes excellent seasonal and British ingredients, including artichoke soup, New Forest mushrooms, Cornish cod and Lake District lamb. My partner loved the lamb loin with the braised shoulder hotpot, which came with a delicious mint sauce. Louise pointed out that the Wagyu beef comes from Ashridge, and they are the only restaurant who serve it from that supplier at the moment; the rest goes to individual customers. The wine list is good and they have a hand-written book of one-off bottles which is worth a look if you want to try something off-list.

I really liked the private dining room which is up a flight of stairs; there is one large table for 8–10, and there is a lovely view across the rooftops of Fishpool Street and to the Cathedral. There are a lot of stairs involved, so access is limited.

With main courses costing around the #17–24 mark (and #42 for the beef), Loft is one of the more expensive restaurants in our area, comparable to Galvin at The Centurion and Thompson’s. They are already very busy at weekends, even in January, so it looks like people are excited to see what they offer. An exciting and welcome new addition to George Street!

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Vegan new year

Published in The Herts Advertiser 4 January 2018

You cannot escape that the big new food “trend” for 2018 is going to be vegan eating. It has now become mainstream, with vegan options in many restaurants and the bookshops full of guides on how to eat vegan. Are you going to be one of the tens of thousands who take part in Veganuary, where you aim to eat non-animal foods for the month?

Sean image

I have been reading Fat Gay Vegan: Eat, Drink and Live like you give a Sh!t, by Sean O’Callaghan, published this month. Sean is well-known for his blog of the same name, where he lists new vegan food discoveries in supermarkets and when eating out. He also organises the weekly Hackney Downs Vegan market. It is a very interesting book, explaining why people eat vegan food, the myths, and is packed with practical tips about eating out including when travelling. His focus is on animal cruelty and the more I read about egg and milk production, the more uncomfortable I feel about it. Did you know that thousands of male chicks are killed each year as we only use the female chicks for egg-laying and there is no use for them? And that cows need to be kept ‘pregnant’ to keep producing milk – I think we are so used to eating these foods in the UK that we don’t even really think about how they appear. Sean explains that now vegan food is becoming popular, many restaurants, cafes and food manufacturers are catching on, and eating vegan has never been easier. As we eat more internationally we are learning how to cook and eat vegan food, as lots of Indian, Moroccan, Turkish and Italian food is plant-based. Sean is a great down-to-earth alternative to the ‘wellness’ food writers of the past few years; he is not about eating vegan to look a certain way, and I think his focus on great burgers and everyday streetfood will help broaden the appeal of vegan food, especially to people (men?) who think all meals need meat.

Pharm cakes vegan

What is going on locally? You might already know about The Green Kitchen on Hatfield Road who sell vegan breakfasts and lunches, as well as host monthly vegan and vegetarian suppers. Vine Leaves in Harpenden also does delicious vegan food such as falafel, mutabel and hummus-based dishes. Parker & Vine often have vegan salads. I spoke to Marianne Jordan, who is part of The St Albans Vegetarian and Vegan Families group who meet once a month for potluck suppers. I had dinner at Marianne’s home, which was delicious, and she recommended some good places to eat locally, including The Juice Pharm, Tabure and Bar Meze. Most of the chains do vegan options including Pizza Express, Zizzis and Wagamamas. She did say that we could do with more choice locally and that “restaurant owners should get with the trend – you are missing out on big bucks”. Email Marianne Jordan via vegparents@stalbans-nct.co.uk for more info on the group. North Herts Vegans also arrange meet-ups.

The veganuary.com website is full of practical tips on how to shop, cook and eat vegan food, including a list of all the chains who now serve vegan food, and it is a long list. With chains like Pret now opening vegetarian-only branches, and Peyton and Byrne who run cafes in the London galleries and museums saying that people are no longer buying meat dishes, it is clear that people are choosing to eat less meat. These companies exist to make money, and are following the trend rather than leading it. In Brighton and Bristol there are now many vegan restaurants; will St Albans and Harpenden follow this year? The new year is a great time to think about the choices we make; are they conscious choices or just habit? Before choosing the meat option, why not look at what other choices are available? You might feel better for it.

FatGayVegan_Minijacket

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Looking back at 2017

Published in The Herts Advertiser 21 December 2017

brewdolphGrab a coffee and a mince pie, take a break from present wrapping, and let’s take a look back at some of the food news from 2017. What opened and what closed, and what were the trends in St Albans and Harpenden? With national news being full of shop closures and Brexit, how were things in our (fairly) affluent area?

The main news story has to be the danger facing our fantastic pubs. It has been a horrendous year with the Conservative government failing to address the issues with raised business rates; 80% of the pubs in St Albans will see their rates rise by 72%, which is about £27,000 a pub. The Save St Albans Pubs campaign saw Sean Hughes from The Boot and Dylan’s and Christo Tofalli from Ye Olde Fighting Cocks lobbying Westminster. Sean has calculated that he will need to sell 22,000 more pints a year to afford the increase. We have a very talented group of pub landladies/lords at the moment; the pubs are the best they have been for many years, with great food and drinks and social events. Ann Main needs to make this a priority, else we will lose pubs in 2018.

 

CarmellosIn more positive news, I think 2017 was the year independent businesses fought back against the chains. We have had more independent cafes, coffee shops, restaurants and food stalls open than I can remember. George Street has just welcomed Loft where 4 Nations used to be, and The Abbey should open soon. Landlord rent increases mean that popular Number 23 is closing in the new year, but I hope the owners find somewhere else. The Bishop’s Cave on Holywell Hill proves that the wine bar is not dead – more on that in the new year. Fleetville saw several new openings including Nonnos, The Fleetville Larder and 50Nine, all of which have proved very popular. Heartwood Tearooms opened in Sandridge, and Bistro Gautier flourishes on Station Road in Harpenden. Carmellos in London Colney is very busy as is The Street Cafe on Catherine Street, both showing that sometimes we just want the basics done really, really well.

Hiit sign

Are we getting healthier? The Juice Pharm next to the Arena and Hiit on Chequer Street think so; they both opened this year, offering good ranges of juices, salads, things on toast, vegan cakes and plant-based meals. I really like the cauliflower pizza in Juice Pharm and I had a great salmon and rice lunch in Hiit. People have commented on the prices in both to me; it’s interesting as we seem able to pay 12 quid and over for a mass-produced pizza but balk at 8 pounds for salmon and vegetables – is food considered more valuable on a plate rather than in a box?

StAlbansFDF Credit Stephanie Belton FREE TO USE (87)

Talking of boxes, the food street markets are flourishing. The St Albans Charter markets on Wednesday and Saturday now have a great selection of regular food stalls; I do wonder if the smoke from some annoys the clothes shops nearby though. The farmers markets continue to thrive in both Harpenden and St Albans, and Radlett is hoping the new Artisan market will do well. Food at the St Albans Food & Drink Festival and Christmas Lights Switch on was excellent. Harpenden continues to ‘debate’ their involvement in the Food & Drink Festival; I hope they work out how to join in again.

Parker & Vine are showing Harpenden that indies can thrive if you give people what they want (salad and cake!). I hope Zero Juice and Sushi survive Waitrose opening a sushi bar right opposite – thanks Waitrose…

EdBevin

Turkish food seems to be a trend locally, with Tabure continuing to be one of the hardest places to get a table! Saute (Adelaide Street) and Ayos (Beaconsfield Road) both opened, offering more traditional grills.

So, we have plenty of good news – our indies are excellent and we are lucky to have such choice. I hope rising food costs and losing staff to Brexit won’t be a massive problem for them. I have been delighted to see the success of the refusethestraw campaign with 27 places reducing their use of landfill plastic. But there is still loads to do to make our food offering more sustainable; we are lightyears behind Bristol and Brighton and are drowning in single-use coffee cups and plastic wrapping. Let’s hope we get better at that in 2018.

Hatfield Food Festival

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The Secret Truffletier

treespuddingsDid you know that we have our very own Chocolate Factory, tucked away in rural Hertfordshire? While you read this, an army of Truffletiers are making hundreds of chocolate stars, buttons, lollies, snowmen and reindeers ready for Christmas. Delicious truffles are being packed into glossy red boxes, tied with gold ribbons, and marzipan animals are being shaped and painted, ready for Christmas day.

If you drive through quiet Woolmer Green, you might miss the factory just on the outskirts; there are no giant golden gates to draw you in. The modern exterior doesn’t do justice to the lovely shop inside; it really is well worth a visit at this time of year.

The Lessiter’s family have been making chocolate since 1911 for many famous names (which remain a closely-guarded secret), but you can buy their delicious chocolate under their own name The Secret Truffletier. They are proud to use fresh cream from local British farms in their truffles, rather than the more common vegetable oils.

shelves

Inside the shop, the walls are lined with oak and glass-fronted cabinets and smart shelves, containing the red boxes of Lessiter’s signature truffles. Rows of chocolate Father Christmases, snowmen and reindeers of various sizes stand guard. Tables are covered in baskets, piled with crackers and stars for the tree, or you might be drawn to the classics such as rose and violet creams, cherry brandies and mint thins.

I chose chocolate coins and chocolate Brussels Sprouts, which are a weirdly realistic green; a perfect stocking filler for my family. You can also buy Christmas trees made from piles of chocolate truffles, which I think would make a fun alternative to christmas pudding after christmas lunch.

trees

The tiny cafe (just three tables) overlooks part of the factory kitchen, and we could see Truffletiers at work through the window making marzipan fruits. The cafe has a nice selection of cakes (including chocolate, of course) and our coffees came with a chocolate star. If you prefer you can buy bags of hot chocolate to take home.

lollies

If you cannot make it to the shop, you can order some of the boxes online, but they don’t send everything they make as it is so delicate; what a great excuse to visit! The shop and cafe are open Monday to Saturday, 9 to 5.

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Christmas treats in St Albans & Harpenden

Published in The Herts Advertiser 7 December 2017

I love this time of the year, when I can share with you some of the special Christmas foodie treats that are on offer in our local area. We need plenty of things to cheer us up when the weather gets cold, so here are some of my favourites!

creperie

I hope you have been to the beautiful Christmas market in the Vintry garden, next to the Cathedral. In a stunning location, you can pop in to buy a cup of mulled wine, cider, Winter Pimms or hot chocolate from Hatch. I like that there are now tables tucked away in corners (two with an amazing view of the Cathedral); it’s a fab place to stop during your Christmas shopping. When I visited a few days ago, you could also buy toasties, roasted chestnuts, noodles, pulled pork and Bratwurst. Stalls were selling chocolate kisses, fudge, preserves and whisky, and I plan to buy stocking fillers from local company I am Cocoa who make beautiful chocolate lollies and trees. The market is open Saturday and Sunday 10-6, Monday to Friday 11-6 with extended opening until 8 on Thursdays. It is free entry.

rockpopshopwindow

As you leave the Christmas market wander up Holywell Hill and pop into Rock Pop Candy, which has a fantastic advent calendar window display this year. You will be able to find lots of retro sweets (maybe for a grown-up stocking?), including imports such as Stateside chocolate, Hersheys, Reeses and Brachs.

brewdolph

If you are lucky, the Beer Shop on London Road might still have bottles of Farr Brewery ‘Brewdolph’ beer left. I bought three, and they were selling out! You can also visit the Farr Brewery shop on the 15th, 16th, 17th, 21st, 22nd and 23rd December (11-5).

Sopwell House is serving a really pretty afternoon tea this year (see photograph) until Saturday 30th December (not 24-25 Dec). It is 29.95 (with mulled wine 34.95 and champagne 39.95).

sopwellhousetea

Parker and Vine in Harpenden make delicious Christmas cakes and mince pies, and you can also buy preserves, pickles and chutneys; they sell them in small gift sets and hampers, or individually. I like the look of the Santa Special Rolla Granola, with pecans, walnuts and orange, which would make a lovely Christmas morning breakfast.

granola

For your essential vegetables and fruits, the Charter Market in St Albans is on every day from Saturday 16 December until Christmas Eve. We also have the St Albans Farmers Market on Sunday 10 December and Harpenden Farmers Market on Sunday 17 December, where all our regular favourites will be selling.

fudge

The Abbots Kitchen has moved into a marquee while the redevelopment takes place, which now means you get a nice view of the park! If you would like to book for Christmas lunch will be available on weekdays between Monday 4th and Friday 22nd December.

Bookings for Christmas Lunch must be made in advance. For more information or to make a Christmas Lunch reservation, call 07813 343033 or email abbots.kitchen@elior.co.uk #21 for two courses.

Carols till Closing is a great excuse to go to the pub and join in with some festive singing. Join Father Richard from St Saviours for carols at The Boot (Weds 13th December), The White Lion (Thursday 14th December), The White Hart Tap (Monday 18th December) and Ye Olde Fighting Cocks (Tuesday 19th December) all from 8pm.

Finally: I feel very fortunate to be able to eat delicious food all year round for my job. I am also very lucky to be able to share lovely food on Christmas day with my husband and two children, but not everyone else is so fortunate which is why I have donated to Crisis this year; they offer a Christmas meal to someone in need for #26.08. If you are able to do the same please go to http://www.crisis.org.uk/get-involved/reserve-a-place-at-crisis-at-christmas.

Hatch

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Cafe Trio, WGC

Published in WH Times 29 November 2017

The big chain coffee shops and restaurants tend to grab the most prominent locations in Welwyn Garden City, but I am always on the look out for an interesting independent, who offer something special. Overshadowed by the enormous Sainsburys, Cafe Trio is tucked away on a pedestrian street, yet has managed to attract and keep many loyal customers, so I popped in last week to find out why.

outsidecafetrioIt was a chilly day, but we were welcomed with a smile and shown to a cosy corner with bright orange seating; it was busy even for an early Monday lunchtime, which is a great sign. I liked the upbeat, but not intrusive music, and service was quick and helpful.

The menu is long, with breakfasts, soups, sandwiches and more substantial main courses with a Turkish and Mediterranean focus. I love Turkish dips and falafel so asked the waiter about the hot and cold meze plate, which she described well, and a few minutes later showed it to me as one passed by on its way to another customer! For under 7 pounds, it was a generous and delicious plateful with hummus sprinkled with sumac, a herby falafel, a light courgette fritter, white bean salad, fresh tzatziki and a very good tomato and couscous dip. It came with a bowl of warm Turkish bread.

insidecafetrio

My partner chose a vegetable moussaka which was full of flavour, with lovely layers of aubergine, potato, spinach and tomato. One negative note: the plates could have been cleaner; mine was smeary with fingerprints which I had to clean, but the food was so delicious and good value I can forgive them that.

Cafe Trio is now also open in the evenings Wednesdays to Saturdays, and I like the sound of the evening menus, which include Turkish pizza, meze platters, oven-baked lamb, grilled fish dishes and authentic kebabs. They do cocktails in the evenings and have a good range of wine, and they make it clear on their leaflets that they welcome families and groups. Cafe Trio recently won ‘highly commended’ at the WGC Business Awards, and I can see why it is well liked; it isn’t the most sophisticated place in WGC, but it is friendly and offers great value, which is very welcome on a cold day. Call 01707 322121 to book for the evenings.

cafetrio

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A taste of Vietnam

Published in The Herts Advertiser 23 November 2017

Every now and then I find a place to eat that is so good that I don’t really want to tell you about it. It can be very tricky to get a table in some of our best local restaurants, which is great for them, but not so good for us; giving more publicity only makes it harder to get in!

A Taste of Vietnam is one of these “places”, although it isn’t anywhere you can book a table; it is a little trickier than that. A one-woman business, A Taste of Vietnam is properly home-cooked food, only available on a Friday evening, and you have to go and pick it up. There isn’t a website yet, and you have to find the menu via facebook, but once you have navigated all that, you are in for the best takeaway you have ever had.

Hoang NguyenI met Anne Harvey (also known as Hoang) when I went to pick up our order, from her home in the Fleetville area of St Albans. Anne learned to cook from her grandmother and mother, and really missed the food when she moved to the UK. Anne started the business in June, inspired after a trip to Vietnam where she met chefs and family members and really took note of how they prepare classic dishes. She advertised on St Albans Mums facebook page, and business spiralled from there. Anne dreams of opening her own cafe serving Vietnamese food, so watch this space. I think Anne’s food would also be hugely popular for anyone needing private catering; you will just need to give a lot of notice!

IMG_6974So, to the actual food. We unpacked the parcels and as instructed reheated the pho (I used a saucepan rather than a microwave, all fine). It all looked incredibly fresh and beautiful, with wedges of lime provided to squeeze over, and plenty of fresh herbs. The fried lattice rolls stuffed with minced pork, glass noodles and cloud ear mushrooms with dipping sauce were amazing; they are lighter and crispier than spring rolls and incredibly more-ish. Anne told me that she can’t buy the lattice papers in the UK and her mum sends them from Vietnam, so I think it unlikely that you will be able to get these in many places. Four rolls cost just 3.50.

Summer rolls were stuffed with wafer-thin vegetables, prawns, fresh herbs and noodles, which we sliced into rounds like sushi to share, but you can just eat as they are. The papaya prawn salad with fish sauce, crushed peanut, crispy onion and fresh mint was divine and so fresh – if you ate this every day you would be very healthy.

Pho (pronounced more like “pha”) is the classic Vietnamese soup with noodles and poached chicken topped with beansprouts. Anne explained that she cooks the oxtail broth all day to get the depth of flavour and to keep the pho broth clear. If you prefer a non-meat option, just talk to Anne about the options.

We also had a delicious coconut-based chicken curry, with lemongrass, potatoes, onions and spices that are a family secret. Grilled fish curry was amazing too, with the fish keeping its delicate and firm texture in the coconut sauce. Portions were very generous and great value, with mains around the 7 pound mark, with rice.

To find out what is on the menu for the coming Friday, and for the easiest way to book, go to the facebook page tasteofvietnamstalbans or email tamnguyenfpt@hotmail.com. You collect from Anne’s house which is near Clarence Park, St Albans between about 5 and 8. But please don’t all rush at once!

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