First post of the year! Happy new year, everyone! I’ll start the year with a great restaurant that’s local to us, one that’s a short bus ride away from me (though likely more of a train journey for most people in London).

I know that there are a million and one burger restaurants and many of them are of a few particular chains. This restaurant, Dexter Burger, is an independent and has some seriously good burgers. Their prices may seem steeper than other burger joints (£9 for a hamburger) but a side of their excellent rosemary and sea salt fries are included. Bearnaise and rocket leaves are default, tomato and onion and jalapenos are free, and other toppings (like cheese) are a small supplement. For a supplement, the fries can also be upgraded. On our first visit there, we both got cheeseburgers (+£1) but I upgraded my fries to sweet potato fries too (+£1).

I really like their burger – it’s incredibly juicy and meaty and they mix a tiny bit of minced onion into the patty as well. The bun is excellent, holding its structure in the face of all those meat juices. Sweet potato fries are, of course, amazing.

Back in London, having a burger. It's good to be home! Also, Dexter Burger is our latest discovery and we love it.

Do ask for their homemade sweet chilli sauce (photo above, top right) – it’s wonderful and very addictive.

On a more recent visit, we tried their courgette fries (£3.50) as well and they’re just as good as I expected them to be.

Dinner at the excellent Dexter Burger in Purley last week.

I pushed the boat out and upgraded my fries to chilli rub fries (+£1.20). I had no idea what to expect but was delighted when presented with my pile of fries topped with a chilli sprinkle (the rub, I gather), a chilli mayo, and lots of pickled jalapenos.

Dinner at the excellent Dexter Burger in Purley last week.

The dessert list is short (two items) but the one dessert we have tried (their banoffee pie) was fantastic with lots of cream and toffee sauce.

Dinner at the excellent Dexter Burger in Purley last week.

I love them and am very happy to find a local independent burger place that’s excellent. Watch out for their opening times as they close earlier on Sunday evenings. They have a separate weekend brunch menu as well that’s enticing – baked eggs, pancakes, pork burger?! I’ll be seeing you again, Dexter Burger.

Dexter Burger
10 High Street
Purley CR8 2AA

It’s cold, isn’t it? It’s definitely colder than last year and it certainly feels like a proper winter so far. Winter always brings hotpot to mind and recently I tried a version new to me. I’d heard of dry hotpot but I only got my first taste of it a few weeks ago when a friend organised a dinner at Jinli, a restaurant in Chinatown just a little off the usual tourist path. This is a Sichuan restaurant that used to be China City and when I got there, I saw that every table had a large dish in the centre from which diners were picking out delectable little morsels. This was Sichuan dry hotpot.

Of course, we got our own dry hotpot too, with my friend arranging for the various ingredients from a long list provided to him. This is what appeared! You can see the cans of soft drink around its edges for scale.

Tonight's massive Sichuan dry hotpot! 🌶🌶🌶

It was a veritable mountain of a typically Sichuan spiced stir fried hodge podge! There were dried chilies and Sichuan peppercorns for the usual ma la flavour and various other spices that I couldn’t really put my finger on. My friend had ordered thin slices of pork belly, luncheon meat (Spam), fish balls, lotus root, Chinese cabbage, choy sum, tofu skin, and sweet potato noodles. We had a bucket of rice for our table too, necessary for all that concentrated spicy flavour!

My understanding is that this style of hotpot is a newer style of dish in China and is currently very popular. I’ve heard that Jin Li isn’t the only place that serves it in London so do keep your eyes peeled if you’d like to try it. For the five of us, this giant hotpot, two starters of and excellent mouth-watering chicken and fried green peppers, rice and soft drinks came to about £24 each.

Jinli
4 Leicester Street
London WC2H 7BL

You’ll already have heard loads about Padella, I’m sure, but here’s my two cents (pence)! The hype is indeed valid for Padella next to Borough Market – their pasta dishes are fantastic. On a not-so-recent day off a month or two ago, I met my brother there and between the two of us, we split three pastas (most everyone else seemed to be splitting a starter and then having a pasta each).

Their famous pici cacio & pepe (£6.50) lived up to expectations! The thick, chewy pici were coated with the unctuous mixture of cheese and pepper – fabulous.

Pici cacio & pepe

Likewise, there’s quite a following for their pappardelle with 8-hour Dexter beef shin ragu (£8.50). I’m a sucker for a good ragu and this was excellent.

Pappardelle with 8-hour Dexter beef shin ragu

Taglierini with Dorset crab, chilli and lemon (£12) was wonderfully fresh and the only thing that could have improved it would have been to be having it al fresco by the sea. I loved the different pasta shapes and the way they’ve been thrust into the spotlights here – I definitely don’t recall seeing pici anywhere else, for example.

Taglierini with Dorset crab, chilli and lemon

Even for a weekday lunch, we had to queue but the restaurant is bigger than I expected so it was only a 10 minute wait for the two of us that day. I’m not sure what it’s like on a weekend. Oh, and the menu does change from time to time!

Padella
6 Southwark Street
London SE1 1TQ

I’m not entirely sure why we’d not yet been to Karnavar on South End, Croydon’s restaurant street. It’s a more upmarket Indian restaurant and I think we were going to save it for a special occasion. Well, that is, until I discovered they have a spectacular deal for Sunday brunch – five courses for £25, or £40 if you want a champagne brunch, for a massive Indian style roast brunch. The menu is an Indian twist on the Sunday roast lunch but also features classics from their usual a la carte menu, making it a good first visit. We went one recent Sunday when we felt yes, brunch and yes, Indian food, and loved it.

Here we go. Five courses.

Chef Cooking Station and Starter Table

Course 1: Chef Live Cooking Station.
The station was placed at one end of the starter table (photo above). From here, you could place an order (or lots of orders) for freshly made dosas, oothapams, Indian omelettes, or Indian scrambled eggs. We shared a plain dosa (made small, just the right size for a buffet) and a beautifully made Indian omelette. We only realised after our meal that the chef manning this station was the chef-owner – he was just the friendliest!

Indian Omelette

Course 2: The Starter Table.
On the table by the window, there was a good spread of various dishes from which to help yourself. My particular highlights were the Roasted Dokla with Home Cured Sardines and Potato Salad, the fantastic Karnavar Special Golden and Candy Beetroot Chaat with Goji Berry and Moong Bean Sprout, and the Dahi Wada (Black Gram Dumplings with Yogurt, Mustard and Cumin). Take your time over them… it’s a leisurely brunch and you’re welcome to graze for as long as you like.

Starters

Course 3: Intermediate.
This course was brought to your table by a waiter wielding a massive frying pan full of Tulsi Seekh Kebab and Chicken Tikka. Both were very spicy and flavourful and I probably could have put away a lot more if I hadn’t been worrying about what and how much was coming next.

Seekh Kebab and Chicken Tikka

There was also a separate pan full of Salmon Pakora with Sweet Curry, Capers and Gherkin Sauce. This I loved, definitely putting away a few more than necessary – that sauce was like a fantastic Indian tartar sauce.

Salmon Pakora

Course 4: Mains.
Then it was time for mains. Each diner gets to choose one of the mains from the list but they can have as much of that protein as desired. My Roasted Pork Belly Coorg/Kerala style served with Mappas Sauce was fine but Blai’s Sea Bass Polichathu, Kerala Coastal style served with Mappas Sauce was finer. I think I had been hoping that the pork belly was spiced itself but most of the Indian flavour was from the onion sauce served alongside. Blai’s fish was exactly as I’d hoped for, all dusted with spice.

Roasted Pork Belly Coorg/Kerala style served with Mappas Sauce

Sea Bass Polichathu

It’s not a roast dinner though without all the sides! Garlic and fennel seed spiced roast potatoes were tender and delicious. Vegetables were an addictive Cauliflower thoran (addictive), an excellent Chef’s seasonal vegetables, which that day was Broccoli do pyaza, and my typical Indian meal must-have, Panchmel dal (think tarka dal). Carbs were a Saffron pulao rice and Butter naan (very buttery!). Like the mains, you could get more of the sides you desired. You can imagine how stuffed we were by the end of this course!

Sides

Sides and Naan

Dessert was a tasting plate of (from left to right) Rasamalai (Indian Milk Cheese Dumplings with Pistachio), raspberry sorbet, and Kinnathapan Malabar (Rice and Coconut Pudding with Lemon Sorbet). I do believe this is the only course you cannot repeat but the little sweet bites were the perfect size after we’d stuffed ourselves from the previous four courses. Actually, no, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want another of the amazing rasamalai, some of the best I’d ever had.

Dessert Platter

Bookings are essential for Sunday brunch (it’s very popular) and can be made via their website. What I noticed was that the food was highly spiced and flavourful but not chilli-hot, making it perfect for families, and there were a lot of families that Sunday. Needless to say, go hungry! Oh, and if you’re a vegetarian or dining with vegetarian, there are vegetarian options for the more meaty courses (vegetarian but not vegan).

Karnavar
62 South End
Croydon
London CR0 1DP

On our walk back home through Gràcia from our lunch at Rio Teppan, I happened across a restaurant whose name rang a bell in a good way – La Singular. We revisited with Blai’s mom later during our trip and it did turn out to be a great meal. Their €10 menu del dia is creative and brilliant, as evinced by the crowds but there are no reservations taken for lunch so either show up early or show up late to avoid a wait.

To feed the crowds quickly, I can see that first dishes and desserts are made in advance and just plated while second dishes are cooked immediately. Blai started with the Amanida de llentíes amb vinagreta de cumí (lentil salad with cumin vinaigrette). This was brilliant with the earthy cumin playing nicely with zingy vinegar and the equally earthy lentils. Cumin isn’t a common nor popular spice in Catalonia but it was used wonderfully here.

Amanida de Llentíes amb Vinagreta de Cumí

I already knew what I wanted for my first dish when I saw the paella of black rice when we entered the restaurant. Arrós negre amb all i oli was delicious with its squid and mussels and the aioli served with it was clearly homemade with a very light, foamy texture.

Arrós Negre amb All i Oli

Blai’s second dish of an Asian-inspired Ventresca de tonyina amb soja, algues i brots (tuna with soy, seaweed and bean sprouts) was extremely fresh and not too heavy. I loved its simplicity.

Ventresca de Tonyina amb Soja, Algues i Brots

My Cuixetes de pollastre escabetxades amb taronja i hummus de pèsols (chicken legs in a vinegar sauce with orange and pea hummus) was also excellent. The combination wasn’t one I’d ever come across – peas and orange – but by golly, it did work. There are certainly some good ideas coming out of that kitchen.

Cuixetes de Pollastre Escabetxades amb Taronja i Hummus de Pèsols

Desserts were of the very simple sort that I love for everyday. Pastís de pressec (peach cake) was a slice of a simple sponge embedded with chunks of fruit.

Pastís de Pressec

The winner though was a Mousse de mató amb coulis de fruits vermells (fresh cheese mousse with red fruit coulis), all light and fresh.

Mousse de Mató amb Coulis de Fruits Vermells

Definitely a winner, this one! I think the menu changes daily too and from what else I’ve read about the place, there is indeed a thread of Asian-influence running through the Catalan menu. As usual, I’m keen to go back for dinner one day!

La Singular

Carrer de Francisco Giner, 50
08012 Barcelona

Okonomiyaki in Barcelona! Yes! To my knowledge, Rio Teppan (in Gràcia) was one of the first places to specialise in this Japanese treat and I happened upon it a few years ago. It’s now very popular and we finally got to try it this year. Luckily I insisted that Blai book a table for that lunchtime – the place is tiny and bookings are truly essential for lunch or dinner; many people were turned away whilst we were there. Oh, and FYI, there’s no menu del dia there, just the a la carte.

We started with a plate of karaage which turned out to be tasty but unlike any other karaage I’d ever had. This version was battered rather than coated with the usual flour/starch.

Karaage

The real strengths were, of course, in the dishes cooked on the teppan in the back – there are even seats right by it for you to see all the action. An omusoba was delicious and not drowned in sauce. The omelette wrapping the yakisoba was thin and clearly very carefully made.

Omusoba

Our okonomiyaki was also clearly made with care and again was not topped with crazy lashings of sauce. The cabbage was finely chopped in the mixture and the whole thing didn’t feel as coarse as some okonomiyakis I’ve had in London. I’d go so far to say that this okonomiyaki was definitely better than any I’ve had in London! I really need to go back to try their Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki, made in layers with one of noodles.

Okonomiyaki

For dessert, we split a homemade strawberry ice cream mochi which was fine. We probably wouldn’t bother with this again as usually these homemade mochis end up rock hard during freezing. Our problem, not theirs.

Strawberry Ice Cream Mochi

Highly recommended but just remember to book in advance!

Rio Teppan
Carrer de Minerva, 6
08002 Barcelona

There’s a restaurant in Gràcia called La Ceba (The Onion) which specialises in truites – the Catalan word for Spanish tortillas. Their main menu lists truites made with many ingredients, some of which you perhaps cannot imagine in an omelette, as well as other Catalan dishes. We ate there one lunchtime this summer and ordered off their more expensive menu del dia (they have a cheaper one as well – and it also looked good) at €13,80 each. Service from the off was…well, off. The servers were ill-tempered and rushed off their feet at the lunchtime crowd. They seemed to hate our (the diners, any diners) existence. That said, the food is fabulous so perhaps someone’s happy in the kitchen.

A torrada d´escalivada, formatge manxego i anxoves gratinada was a large slice of toast topped with lots of the Catalan grilled vegetables, melted cheese and anchovies. While simple, the toast was delicious in its simplicity and generosity.

Torrada d´Escalivada, Formatge Manxego i Anxoves Gratinada

We had to have a truita, of course – here was a truita de carbassó i patates (courgette and potato). Excellent. It wasn’t overcooked and had just the right egg to filling ratio. Its perfect size inspired me to go out and buy a pan that’s just that diameter (I bought it and it’s great!).

Truita de Carbassó i Patates

I had seen a hamburger go to a neighbouring table and it looked great – we ordered one. This excellent hamburguesa amb ceba caramel.litzada (cooked to a perfect juicy medium) came with salad, fries, and that lovely large dollop of caramelised onions.

Hamburguesa amb Ceba Caramel.litzada

Our other second dish was the Catalan classic botifarra amb mongetes seques – a big grilled fresh sausage with cooked dried beans. Excellent and especially excellent were the beans, which had been fried a little after they had been boiled. Usually you just get boiled beans.

Botifarra amb Mongetes Seques

Notice how both were big, hearty meat dishes – we needed a break from fish after our time on the Costa Brava!

Desserts were an average flam

Flam

… and an amazing pastís de formatge (cheese cake) that Blai says was the best he’s had in the city.

Torta de Formatge

So yeah, hopefully it’s not always this grumpy in the restaurant as they’re putting out some terrific food. I’d love to go back in the evening to try one of their many other truites.

La Ceba
C/ La Perla, 10
Barcelona