PEARL Hackney Wick

A Friday afternoon and I’d taken off to grab lunch with Andre in East London… I’d booked Cornerstone, a new restaurant with Cornish vibes that looks absolutely delicious…. and when we got there, it was closed! Checking the reservation, I saw that I had booked for the next week… damn.

So, we went across the road to the cafe nearby and decided to have lunch there instead. The options on the menu are simple, with lots of egg dishes, a few salads, and a few burgers.

I went for the haloumi and falafel salad, which was quite substantial, served with roasted aubergine, tomato, and big, leafy greens. The falafel wasn’t overfried, and the haloumi was generous.. it was a big dish! Topped with drizzles of a tahini-based sauce, I enjoyed this salad quite a bit (if not as much as I would have, a lunch at Cornerstone!)

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Andre got an omelette with tomatoes and mushrooms, with some salad on the side… it was HUGE.

While we waited for our food to come out, we started to play chess… then, overwhelmed by the idea of how long the game could take, abandoned it pretty soon after the food came!

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Old Town 97, Chinatown

The weather’s been pretty crappy, rainy and cold the past few days, which is a real change from the 30 degree, sunny weather we’ve had for most of the summer. It almost feels good for a few days, until you’re sick of having wet feet…

One of these days, I headed down to Chinatown for a bowl of noodle soup to warm me up. Seeing the roast duck and char siu hanging in the window, I walked into Old Town 97 to have a bowl there.

The place is quite simple, not very decorated, and the staff is quite busy, so it took me a good ten minutes to order. Then much longer to get my food.

But when the soup came, it really hit the spot. The duck was good, large pieces with a good amount of fatty duck skin and not much bone (my pet peeve is ordering roast duck, and being given the scraggly pieces with lots of bone and not much meat, what’s the point!?!) – but the real winner of the soup was the noodles; soft, springy and almost fluffy, these were the lightest noodles I’ve had in a while, all while not being mushy or breaking apart. I usually notice bad noodles, but never good ones, and these ones were really that good.

At £7.50, this was a perfect lunch break that warmed me up, and the noodles brought that extra little bit more that will make me come back here for noodle soup again.

Whitstable Cafe and Kitchen, Whitstable

The Sunday morning in Whitstable, we rent bikes and decide to go for a long ride along the water. We stop by one of the grocery stores, but everything is bought already (its one of those kinds of weekends!) and so we head ot the Cafe and Kitchen to see if they’ll make take-away sandwiches for us.

The Cafe itself is very cute, with a big room in the back, and little seats in the front room. They serve everything from quiches, sandwiches and salads, to heavier main dishes.

We each went for the sandwiches, as they were the easiest to carry out. I got a roast chicken, tomato and avocado sandwich on sourdough bread. The creamy avocado made it just good enough.

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This is how Andre feels about his sandwich… he got the Coronation chicken sandwich, which was basically curried chicken on sourdough… no raisins, nothing else… pretty unexciting.

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So, back in Whitstable, perhaps we would try out the quiches or main dishes the Cafe has to offer, but we certainly would not come back for a sandwich, as we found them quite basic, not very tasty, and quite pricey for what they were!

Chickpea – Lebanese Street Food, New Cross, London

A spontaneous weekend away, we decided to head to the beach! Driving through London to get to the M2, we were starving by the time we got to New Cross and realised we had at least another hour before we got to Whitstable… so we stopped at a Lebanese place for some sandwiches.

I ordered us two shish taouk pitas… grilled chicken wraps with onions and spices, and waited for them to be done. And waited. And waited. Overall, they took about 15 minutes, which I found long, given how quickly every other customer was coming in and out of the shop, but when they were done, it was worth the wait.

A large wrap filled with crispy red onions, a delicious, creamier than most, curried and spicy sauce surrounding the chicken… and the chicken itself? Delicious. Moist, large pieces of chicken that had been perfectly grilled. Usually in Lebanese restaurants (to make a huge generalisation), the grilled chicken is overcooked and dry. This was so delightful. This made for the perfect meal for our hungry stomachs, as we continued on towards the beach.

The Dumpling Shack, Spitalfields Market

A Saturday in April, the weather is warm, and Andre and I head to Spitalfields Market to change things up a bit… The last few times I’ve been there, I’ve walked through the clothing and goods market, but only can remember seeing restaurants lining the exterior of the market, all of them, proper sit-down restaurants. This time, they had erected a new structure with a variety of different food stalls in the middle of the building, from dumplings and Burmese food to pastrami sandwiches and roasts.

We obviously went to try out the dumplings.

Andre went for the prawn wonton dumplings in Sichuan chilli oil. They were as expected and quite good, with thin, delicate wonton wrappers and spongy prawn fillings… the chilli oil was a nice addition that gave the dumplings a bit of a kick, though the oil itself had more of a steady, fragrant burn to it instead of a temporary kick.

I went for the pork and leek shengjianbao, their soup dumplings. I didn’t realise at the time that they were pan-fried, not steamed… they were not what I was expecting, but why not try them for a change?

So how are these different from the typical shao long bao that you have? Again, the basic answer is that they’re pan-fried instead of steamed. Oh, and they’re harder to ruin as you’re picking one up!

But like with the shao long bao, you place a spoon under the dumpling and take a delicate bite, being careful not to burn yourself with the steam or juice coming from inside the dumpling, then pour the broth from inside the dumpling out into the spoon and slurp it up.

Then, you put some vinegar in your spoon and dip the dumping in it to eat the rest… the pork filling was similar to what I’ve had in other dumplings, but the dumping itself was different (again, because it was pan-fried dough instead of steamed, thinner dough). I have to say, I prefer the dumplings I’m used to, but I liked the pan-fried dough, which was not cooked uniformly; some parts were browned and crispy from the pan frying, and some parts were almost slightly doughy and less cooked…

Still good, but to be honest, I was kind of wishing that Andre didn’t like his dumplings and that I could eat his instead.

So, next time, I’ll order an order of his dumplings, along with the dan dan noodles that other people had ordered… with thin egg noodles and minced beef on top, they looked really good!

Green Pepper Cafe, Varkala Beach, India

On Sundays, the cafe at Soul & Surf is closed, so we had to branch out (gasp) and go somewhere else for lunch. As we didn’t want to walk all the way to the North Cliff, where most of the restaurants are, we walked over to the Green Pepper Cafe near us. They have their own cliff views of the water…

Neither of us were super hungry, we ordered light… and got some vegetable pakoras and cauliflower pakoras… crunchy and slightly doughy on the outside, these were a treat!

Soul & Surf, Varkala, India

Even further south than Cochin and Alleppy, we headed to a beach town that used to be mainly (foreign) hippies twenty years ago. Since then, more Indian tourists are coming to the beach, as well as more regular foreign tourists, and the vibe of the town has changed some.

We found a surf and yoga hotel to stay at… located on the South Cliff of Varkala Beach, Soul and Surf has a lovely garden where you can hang out on lawn chairs, cushioned beds, or at tables in the cafe. Staring out into the water all day is pretty relaxing… and when you want to get in the water, you just walk down the stairs and onto the beach.

The cafe at Soul & Surf has a number of healthy options, including a mix of salads, plantain tacos,  quesadillas, or, the most popular… the fish tacos! I had these three times while we were in Varkala.

The fish tacos use a firm white fish (quite meaty!), slightly fried, with a light, delicious coleslaw and pomegranate seeds. Then, you have a pineapple salsa and raita/yogurt you can drizzle as toppings.

The portion is quite generous, after eating two of these tacos you’re pretty much stuffed…

Definitely worth a stop when you’re in Varkala, this is one of the coolest places in town!