Monday, November 24, 2008

Pies and Prejudice

The latest home cookery project has to perfect a meat and potato pie. I've experimented with a couple of things so far, involving large pies, mini-pies, beef and Guinness pies and so, but there is still some way to go.

What I have learned so far:
  • I am useless at handling pastry
  • West African Guinness doesn't make a good pie ingredient. It's 7.5% alcohol and tastes a bit too Guinnessy.
  • Despite my usual prejudice, bisto is an essential ingredient.
  • Despite my usual prejudice, I may have to resort to Delia.
These mini-pies made a great treat while Mrs Jiffler was in Cape Town the other week, served with the last of the HP sauce (no more until Christmas now) and a couple of beetroot.

Anyhow, this post is a call for pie suggestions and recipes, particularly for prater pies. How do I get the pastry right?

More from Vietnam next time.

Monday, November 17, 2008


A recent trip to Hanoi involved some excited recalibration of my culinary compass. Normally when a person looks at a map of the world, their eye is first drawn to their home country to find their bearings. My eye was usually drawn to San Sebastian in Northern Spain, to check that it was still there, ready for my return with a bigger budget, and an enormous appetite. It was my eating mecca. Now mecca has shifted further east, and my eye roams towards Vietnam.

Everyone said "You must try the Pho" (pronounced 'fur'), so I made sure this was the first thing to pass my lips. Procured cheaply from a corner cafe (or pretty much anywhere on the side of the street), Pho is easy: beef stock, beef, herbs, chilli, noodles. It's possibly the most complete meal you could ask for, which explains why Vietnamese folk enjoy it for breakfast. Its healthy, cheap, satisfying and requires a lot of interaction with chopsticks and spoons and slurping. There is no looking back now: I have to work this one out at home. Time to get extra friendly with the butcher and see if he can supply me with a few kilos of beef bones.

After a couple of bia hoi (local brew, about 5 pence a glass) our friends took us out to the upmarket restaurant Au Lac. Here, the grand premises occupy what appeared to be a former colonial mansion, and we were welcomed politely and without any stiffness. Being a group of four gave us opportunity to range widely over the menu, and the presence of a vegetarian meant trying a few dishes that I might normally skip over. The sommelier swiftly and politely corrected a corked sauvignon blanc, while I tucked into the local Hanoi beer.

It was here at Au Lac that I decided that my next home cookery project (after Pho) will be making fresh spring rolls. These were an absolute delight:

Surely there is room for some sort of fast food concept based around fresh spring rolls. Once the fillings are prepared they take seconds to make, and are filling and pretty healthy too. I'm imagining a row of half a dozen rolls lined up in a paper box with an assortment of fillings, dipping sauces already already integrated into the wrapping process. Has anybody ever seen anything like this?

I'm still not convinced of the merits of tofu. It was unusual to see groups of men gathering round plates of tofu while knocking back glass after glass of beer at the local bia hoi, but there is something about it that I'm not keen about. I suppose it's just cheese made from soy milk, but without the interesting texture, taste and smell of cheese. Anyhow, one vegetarian dish that did take my fancy was this baked aubergine, which I thought was a fish when it first arrived:

Soft shelled crab with a sweet chilli sauce was probably the best I've ever tasted. I could probably eat a bucketful of these, one after the other.

I got a bit carried away with the food if I'm honest, and had to be reminded to take a photograph of the proceedings. Sadly, we'd already demolished much of the meal. The duck at the bottom of the photograph was something very special - moist and cooked without pretensions. Note the lonely cube of deep fried tofu.

A lot of things make up a great meal - in this case we had the company of good friends, a lot of holiday spirit, and the excitement of being in a new an unfamiliar country. On top of that, the food at Restaurant Au Lac was genuinely outstanding, and the service - from the chilled towels to the most delightful sommelier was first class.

They did nifty cocktails too, with a funky chopstick/drinking straw ensemble which Mrs Jiffler rather liked.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

The Mountain in Labour

Cozy, Rue Parent, Plateau.

Visiting Cozy reminded me of going to see Star Wars Episode I (The Phantom Menace) on the day of release in the summer of 1999. we were a bunch of lads in our twenties - old enough to have obsessed over the original trilogy as boys - who'd taken the day off from whatever we were doing to pile into an airconditioned box in the midlands, knees jiggling with the excitement.

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away... and the heroic, Wagner-esque John Williams theme tune starts up. A head rush of excitement. Five grown men grinning like fools...

But it turned out to be a load of old bollocks.

Cozy, one of Dakar's so called 'fine dining' restaurants aims to impress from the moment you step through the door. Smart staff welcome you to a long, stylish, well stocked bar. The first impression is that somebody has spent some serious money on this place, and it would only be right to spend some serious money on some serious food. The main eating area features oversized chairs and white downlit floor to ceiling curtains which impress at first but, like the CGI effects in the Phantom Menace, end up looking like a cheap interior design. Maximum style for minimum cost.

I'm not sure why the Maitre d' attempted to sit all of the females in our mixed party along one side of the table, with all the boys lined up along the other side. Perhaps he was thinking les anglophones might want to start morris dancing at some point during the meal. we ignored him in any case, but Cozy continued to reinforce the sexist agenda by handing out menus without prices on to the ladies (all of whom were the principal earners in Dakar, the rest of us being 'trailing spouses'). I've seen this kind of disgustingly chauvanistic behaviour in France before, and I'm not sure, in this day and age, what kind of woman is impressed by this, and what kind of pathetic man thinks it's impressive.

One of the challenges for the producers of the Phantom Menace was how to keep the old audience of grown ups interested, while also hooking into the new toy-hungry market of 7 year old boys. What we ended up with was a confusing mish mash of tedious politics and a 'comedy' animated jester. I think Cozy faces the same problem with its mix of pasta, risotto, sushi and French cuisine on the menu. Surely it's wiser to play to your strengths? Just give us some spectacular interstellar dogfights, and maybe a wookie, and we'll love it.

Most of us skip the overpriced starters, and roam the four corners of the earth with our main courses. While service is mostly quick, one of our mains gets forgotten in the kitchen, and there is that terrible habit of topping up the wine, which extended to topping up my water glass with white. They fail the jiffler fish-knife test by surreptitiously swapping my tableknife for a pointless fishknife. Too blunt to stab a waiter in the leg unfortunately.

They should have given me a steak knife, such was the toughness of my overcooked, undersized planche of turbot. Pommes sautes are rubbery, and the accompanying 'paste' of avocado and hibiscus leaves tastes of nothing. Like a mouthful of emptiness. The others seem moderately pleased with their various gnocci and sushi plates, but nobody gets out of their seat to rave about anything. Half of Mrs Jiffler's sashimi selection is appropriately robust and fishy, while the salmon tastes like my avocado paste.

The only thing you can rely on at these upmarket joints in Dakar are the desserts. Sticking firmly in the French style, desserts come in large portions, with all the creative swirls and splats that you could wish for. Cozy passes the Jiffler creme brulee test with flying colours, presenting three separate flavours (vanilla, pistachio and bergamot) in three cups, complete with dipping biscuit and an appropriately unnecessary frizz of thick pink candy floss hovering on the plate like a psychedelic barbed wire fence.

To finish, Nescafe, barmen with highly gelled coiffs spinning glasses, and badly dressed Toubabs clapping like seals to bad techno. More village of the Ewoks than attack on the Death Star.

Like the Phantom Menace, its easy to switch off the quality control and sit through an enjoyable meal, with enjoyable company. But with expectations set high, I left with a sense of disappointment. Right now the best and most consistent cooking in Dakar is coming from the upper-mid-range places - New Africa, Farid, Jardin Thailandais, for example,while the likes of Cozy seem to get by simply by charging high prices and having a shiny bar.

There is more from Dakar at Dakar Restaurant Reviews. Next post I'll be back in Asia.