New Labour, New Islington? Not exactly. It's 30 years since the charismatic American food writer Robert Carrier opened a restaurant in this north London Labour stronghold. And when he won a Michelin star soon after, he secured the area a place on the gastronomic map. His restaurant was closely followed by Frederick's, a grand eaterie tucked behind the antiques markets of Camden Passage. While Carrier has long gone, Frederick's is now celebrating 27 years in business and forms part of a teeming restaurant scene, where the cafes, bars and bistros spill out on to the pavements of Islington.
The best of the new restaurants is Lola's, which opened earlier this year under Juliet Peston, formerly Alastair Little's cook at his eponymous Greek Street restaurant. Had Tony Blair not been engaged on other more important business, he would surely have made a bee-line there. Juliet, it so happens, is the daughter of a Labour peer.
The Blairs have been regular customers of the chic, modern, minimalist Granita, which opened four years ago, and serves Californian-Italian - seared rare tuna, bruschetta, and the like. Co-owner Vicky Leffman says they are dream customers, too, polite, affable, appreciative and never complaining. "Even," she says, "when Mr Blair was obviously in a hurry and I'm afraid there was rather a long wait."
The Blairs have also patronised the more traditional Frederick's (usually on table 31, which seats up to eight people and is tucked away round a corner). With a huge conservatory and looking out on to floodlit gardens, it was one of the few local places large enough to host Cherie Blair's 40th birthday party a few years ago.
Tony Blair originally booked a party for 40, says manager Robert Wingate, but the numbers escalated. When the anticipated guest count passed the 100 mark, he closed the restaurant completely to make it an exclusive event. At least, as exclusive as it's possible to be when Fleet Street is after a photo opportunity. "They had their noses pressed to the windows trying to see who was there. Two of them actually told me they had a sniffer dog, claiming they were security people who had to come in and check out the place. They meant, check out the guests," said Wingate.
In memory of the occasion, the first dish of our series is dedicated to Tony Blair by Frederick's chef, Andrew Jeffs, 32. He is an admirer of the Labour leader, but is reserving his vote for the party which promises to bring down his mortgage commitments. Jeffs, from Stoke-on-Trent, trained under Nico Ladenis, the Michelin three-star chef of Park Lane, and went on to become head chef at Ladenis's Simply Nico.
So how did Jeffs choose this dish? Tony Blair likes fish, he believes. There may have also been a tongue-in-cheek element about the choice of red mullet, evoking as it does the party's traditional colour, although it's debatable if New Labour will really want to be reminded of old Communist connections. On reflection, though, red mullet is really more a designer shade of cerise, and it was certainly an inspirational touch to serve the juicy pink fish on a salad of sweet, vine-ripened cherry (Cherie) tomatoes and beans.
The basic dish is quite simple, and red mullet is full of flavour and interest. The fillets are seasoned with a paste of basil puree, wrapped in filo pastry or similar, and fried for three minutes on each side. The salad and garnish add colour, texture and flavour.
Pulling out the pin-bones from the fillets is a bit fussy if you haven't done it before, and you will need a strong pair of pliers. The bones may be invisible but you can locate them with your fingers.
To elevate the dish to a restaurant level, Andrew Jeffs suggests placing a blob of aubergine caviare (or puree) between the mullet and the bean and tomato salad. The recipe for the, optional, aubergine caviare is given at the end.
RED MULLET BLAIR WITH CHERRY TOMATO AND GREEN BEAN SALAD
For the fish parcels:
fillets from 2 500g/1lb 2oz red mullet, which have been scaled and pin-boned
4 large sheets of spring roll or filo pastry
1 egg white, lightly beaten
2 tablespoons of fresh basil puree
a little olive oil for frying
Lay one of the four sheets of pastry on a clean table or board, and brush all over with the egg white. Place one of the red mullet fillets in the centre of a sheet and spread a quarter of the basil puree over the top. Fold the pastry around to form a parcel. Repeat for the three remaining fillets. Place the parcels to one side and prepare the salad.
For the salad:
4 vine-ripened cherry tomatoes, diced or sliced
400g/14oz cold cooked French beans
2 tablespoons of shallots, finely chopped
3 tablespoons of olive oil
1 tablespoon of balsamic vinegar
Toss lightly together all the salad ingredients and divide on to four plates.
For the topping:
200g/7oz good quality cream cheese
2 tablespoons of fresh, chopped chives
a little seasoning
Mix all the ingredients together thoroughly, checking for seasoning and reserve until required.
To serve: Saute the red mullet parcels in the olive oil, turning once, for about three minutes on each side until they are golden brown.
When cooked, place one parcel on top of the French bean salad, with a dollop of aubergine caviare between the two, if using. Finally, place a generous spoonful of the cream cheese mixture on top of each parcel.
1 large aubergine
2 tablespoons of chopped black olives
2 large shallots, finely chopped
2 tablespoons of flat parsley, finely chopped
2 cloves of garlic, crushed
2 tablespoons of olive oil
1 tablespoon of balsamic vinegar
Wrap the aubergine in foil and bake in a hot oven until it becomes really soft, this will take about 45 minutes to an hour. Remove the baked aubergine from the oven, and allow to cool a little.
Meanwhile saute the shallots, garlic and olives in the oil for a few minutes until soft, remove and place in a large bowl. When the aubergine is cool enough to handle, unwrap, peel and chop the flesh into a bowl. Mix with the other ingredients and season with salt and pepper to taste. !Reuse content