Call me boring if you want, but somehow I seem to be homing in on one very local eatery recently. To be honest, further afield, there were only one or two standout meals right at the beginning of the year.
There was a terrific pizza experience in Paris, in January. At Il Brigante, in the 18th, the atmosphere was incredibly cosy, with no more than half a dozen tables clustered around the oven. This is the smallest place I’ve ever eaten, apart from trying to have breakfast in the bathroom. The two chefs manning the oven are so close you almost feel like they might ask you to lend a hand. But they do make excellent, Calabrian pizza – light and crispy, with just the right amount of toppings.
The place was packed and so intimate that we were almost sitting on the laps of the people at the next table, but it all added to the ambience. On that cold night in late January, it seemed a warm refuge… the steamed-up window, the robust red wine, conversation and pizza… it was an evening to remember.
Then a few weeks later we managed a visit to the new incarnation of Padella in Shoreditch. On a damp, dingy Sunday in early March, lunch here was a welcome change from any of the default-position pub roasts. It was bustling and vibrant, and those little plates of pasta were as exquisite as any renaissance work of art. The tagliarini with crab and a bit of spicy chilli will be long-remembered, and the eight-hour ragu was so unctuous and so deeply moreish, that we just had to have more. Maybe they should consider bigger plates…
But since then I have spurned all that for a place much closer to home.
With a menu that changes daily, Kouzina Karantina in Sheffield has its food roots firmly based in southern Europe. There is some inspiration from Spain and Italy – the handmade spinach and ricotta ravioli was a recent delight and the paella is always exceptional. But this place doesn’t depend on the usual pizza/pasta Mediterranean offerings. Here, despite its very contemporary styling, the food vibe is rustic and unmistakably Greek. Forget that post-pub kebab or the disappointing tourist fare experienced in Faliraki or Malia, here you will find authentic food cooked as it is in homes across Greece…. except better.
From the creamy, comfort rice and minced beef meatballs that are youvarlakia, to the more sophisticated seafood kritharoto, Kouzina Karantina never fails to disappoint.
A recent hi-light was Sunday lunch a few weeks ago and, despite being in Sheffield, there wasn’t a slice of roast beef or a Yorkshire pud in sight. Here we had the slow-roasted shoulder of lamb, with an accompanying side dish of fragrant, baked rice, spiked with tiny morsels of sauteed lambs liver and pine nuts. The lamb shoulder, cooked in a sealed clay pot for over five hours, was soft and fell into silky shreds.
The juices in the bottom of the pot had become a deeply addictive sauce, that added an additional note of meatiness to it all. The rice side dish, inspired by the traditional stuffing for whole, roast baby lambs from the eastern Aegean, is delicately flavoured with cinnamon and mint – not a combination you would naturally go for – but here it works a treat. On the table was a pretty salad of shredded lettuce and dill and a bowl of super-garlicky tzatziki. Forget those little plastic supermarket pots – this is the real deal – thick and creamy with enough garlic to actually give it heat.
Kouzina Karantina’s ambience is relaxed and discreet with a very select clientele. I particularly like the open kitchen and that the chef feels comfortable enough to pull her chair up to your table. Nothing can give a diner as much confidence as seeing the cook enjoying the food too!
I’m a big fan of Mazi in Notting Hill, with their unique take on modern Greek food, but what makes this place exceptional is that authenticity is never sacrificed for style, here we have the simple combination of food full of flavour but that still looks good on the plate.
Kouzina Karantina uses mainly locally sourced produce – our lamb that Sunday was from a farm in Derbyshire. I understand that the chef is hoping to use produce from their own kitchen garden this summer. There is even a promise of the return of their signature dish, stuffed courgette flowers. These are miracles of simplicity, flavour and elegance. The flowers have to be used as early in the day as possible, so that the filling of rice, grated tomato flesh, chopped dill and spring onions, can be inserted without damaging the parchment-thin blooms. So having them grown on-site has to be perfect.
The bread is also made ‘in house’, following a traditional ‘prozimi’ (Greek sourdough) recipe. These loaves are baked to the colour you only get if you’ve spent a whole summer on a Greek beach – bronzed and glistening. They use white 00 flour, enriched with cornmeal which gives the bread an extra depth of flavour and makes for an exceptionally crisp crust.
They don’t just do lunch and dinner, the brunch comes highly recommended as well. The star-turn is their very own version of traditional bouyourdi – finely diced fresh tomatoes, hot peppers and crumbled salty feta, cooked to spicy, molten gooeyness. Bougiourdi is usually a mezé staple, but at Kouzina Karantina a couple of bright yellow eggs are cracked in for the last few minutes in the oven, turning it into a crowd-pleasing breakfast dish.
My criticism of KK is that the deserts are fairly simple, though yet again, this does not go against the grain of authenticity – traditionally puddings don’t feature on the Greek dinner table. Desserts, when they are on offer, are always memorable though. The orange cake is luscious, and freshly fried loukoumades – Greek doughnuts, drooling with Cretan thyme honey and dusted with cinnamon, have all the tastes of a Greek holiday.
And I just can’t keep away …literally.
This is where we have eaten every day since lockdown. We haven’t even had any takeaways. I’m not a fan of delivered food in the best of circumstances, but we live at the top of a fairly steep hill. Having my dinner supplied by a cyclist who’s ride will have felt like an alpine ascent worthy of the ‘Tour de France’, isn’t hugely enticing. I do prefer my meals to be made in the same space as they’re going to be eaten.
So, for the time being, we will stick with Kouzina Karantina, but I’m really looking forward to going back to some real restaurants when we get to the other side.
For another time.
‘Il Brigante’, 14 Rue du Ruisseau, 75018 Paris, France
‘Padella’, 1 Phipp St, Hackney, London EC2A 4PS, U.K.