Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Out with the veggies - The Olive Tree, Loughton, Essex

Having spent two gloriously long, hot summers and countless holidays on various Greek islands, I do count myself as a bit of an authority on good, Greek food. Ever since my love affair with Helenic food began I have been on the hunt for a good local taverna-style restaurant but have found several places sadly lacking in both substance and authenticity.

When a friend suggested a Mediterranean place that’s been open on nearby Loughton High St for 3 years, which I’d yet to sample, I agreed in blind hope and silently prayed it wouldn’t be yet another disappointment!

Checking out the menu online, I was impressed, with the dishes on offer – and even more excited to see one of the owners is called Manos – a true Greek name! If anything sent minor alarm bells off, it was the fact that it is billed as ‘Mediterranean’ rather than just Greek, Spanish, Portuguese, but I thought I will just have to go with an open mind and an empty stomach and see what happens.

So on Easter Saturday after a day in the gorgeous sunshine, I joined three close friends Larni, Jenni and Hayley for a pre-dinner cider in a Loughton watering hole and then we took a very civilised and leisurely stroll over to The Olive Tree.

The glass-fronted doors were wide open with a small terrace area where diners were enjoying their meal al fresco, and the weather was certainly on form for it. We were greeted by the incredibly friendly waiting staff, who walked us to our table and who continued to be helpful, attentive and generally charming throughout the meal – so far, so Greek.

The restaurant was incredibly busy, every table occupied and the atmosphere was good - groups of friends and family and couples alike seemed to be enjoying their Saturday evening. On arrival our noses were assaulted by an array of delicious smells and the hopes for a great meal were rising.
Two of the girls were driving and so opted for the virgin cocktails which both went down well, Larni went for a tropical Pina Colada which was lovely and reminiscent of many a holiday tipple. I chose a Jamaican Mule, which comprised of Morgan’s Spiced Rum, lime, bitters and ginger ale, and was absolutely gorgeous. Refreshing, sharp and with a strong alcohol bite, it was a perfect start to a divine evening.

Being out with the vegetarian crew (yes all three of them!) the meze was ruled out, but there were so many nice sounding appetisers, that this wasn’t a problem. Jenni opted for a simple selection of bread with olive tapenade, Larni for an old favourite – tzatsiki with pitta and Hayley and I shared two slightly heavier starters – Mushroom Crostini and Halloumi & Aubergine Stacks.

The first of our shared dishes comprised, as the name suggests, lightly grilled ciabatta topped with delicious garlic infused, sautéed wild mushrooms, , toasted pine nuts, rocket and shavings of salty parmesan. A simple dish, but executed brilliantly and not a crumb left once we’d got through it. My favourite though was the stacks of creamy, slightly melting halloumi, with herby soft layers of aubergine and slices of plump, juicy beef tomato. Everything was so, so fresh with a small smattering of oregano and I was in my element with it.

For a main Jenni – our most sensible, calorie-counting friend - went for a Greek Salad – which did look lovely, and again really fresh, bright and colourful. The presentation was great, and the dish did put us in mind of a Greek taverna.

Hayley had the Butternut Squash and Sage Tortellini which had a brandy-based creamy sauce. The dish was presented beautifully with an addition of Sweet Potato Crisps, which gave the dish a sweet, crunchy texture. Hayley enjoyed the meal and claimed it was ‘delicious’ and she made plenty of yummy noises. (Keen to point out here I was offered to try some but greed for my own enormous main, prevented me from fitting anything else in!)

Larni had a main of Gemistes, or tomatoes and peppers stuffed with rice, herbs, pistachios and feta. It has to be said that Larni can be a very tough critic when it comes to food – and she fell in love with gemistes in Corfu on a girls holiday we went on a few years back. I was hoping these would match up to that standard but need not have worried, they were perfect, and the addition of the Greek cheese to the dish gave it a new, tasty dimension.

Finally I chose the Stuffed Pork Souvlaki, with great difficulty, as I was also tempted by the a few of the fish dishes as well as the stiffado, a Greek beef stew. I was on tenterhooks as to whether the souvlaki would live up to my high Greek expectations. This is a dish I’ve had more times than I care to remember, a great favourite, and so may seem like a boring choice, but as I mentioned, I’d yet to find anywhere outside of Greece where this was done well.

I can honestly say that this souvlaki actually surpassed any other I’ve ever had. The added twist of stuffing the rolled meat with Italian ham was absolutely genius and the flavour explosions were just fantastic. I felt reminiscent of happy times in Greece, but also loved the modern addition and felt the salty meat gave it an extra kick of deliciousness. As well as the usual Greek mixture of herbs a sharp lemony flavour penetrated the meat and helped keep it nice and juicy. Food heaven for me.

Both mine and Larni’s dishes were served with hand cut, chunky, herby, garlicy chips. They were heartily sized and lovely.

Mine was also served with pitta and tzatsiki, and I couldn’t resist (yes the greed rears it’s ugly head again) another side of tarramasalata – the delicious fish-roe dip. Unlike so many synthetic pre-packed versions that you can pick up in UK supermarkets, this didn’t have the marshmallow looking bright pink colour, and was just a simple white hue. It was, as with everything else I ordered, mouth-wateringly tasty.

Unfortunately for us, as all of the portions were so large and delicious, not one of us could even attempt to order dessert, which was a real shame as the menu looked great.

Overall the meal was absolutely a resounding success. Not one of us had any complaints in relation to the food, if we had any gripe at all, it would simply be to reduce the portion size slightly so we could fit in dessert next time! The restaurant was furnished well, and having a peek in the open-plan kitchen on the way to the toilet demonstrated a clean and tidy working environment. We paid around £30 a head for two courses and drinks which we were all very happy with. I can’t remember the last time I was met with such attentive and friendly staff and I would have no qualms about returning to and recommending the restaurant to friends and family. Also since visiting the website after our meal I notice the restaurant offers various musical entertainment so it is definitely worth checking out.

The Olive Tree is situated on Loughton High St, Essex and to book a table or find out more you can call Jackie or Manos on 020 8502 3332. You can find them online at

You can also read this review in the July edition of Scene Magazine or online here:

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Sunday Delight in Essex - Simply Seafood, Leigh-On-Sea

Sunday’s were once the domain of the family lunch, however this old tradition has become something of a rarity in recent times, especially in our family. As I’m reluctantly creeping into my late twenties and even the ‘baby’ brothers are blossoming into young men rather than boys, we find that we all have busy lives and finding any day at all where we’re all free is proving increasingly problematic. This coming Sunday (17th April) happily, we will all be in London together for one of our own traditions - watching the marathon together, and will then be going to dinner for the first time in a while together, so we are all looking forward to that.
While these opportunities of full family togetherness are rare, we do snatch lunch or dinner together, when it’s just 2 or 3 of us around too and a couple of Sunday’s back me and my mum, Vicky did just that. Making the most of the spring sunshine, we pulled out our shades and journeyed a mere half hour down the road to what I like to think of as the Costa Del Essex – Leigh-on-Sea. This little gem is a stone’s throw away from the ‘Benidorm’ of the Thames Estuary, Southend, and whilst that does offer certain delights that cannot be denied, Leigh is like it’s slightly more upmarket cousin.
Synonymous to locals with seafood stalls or what are called the ‘cockle sheds’, and long-established fish and chip shops, Leigh is becoming ever more cosmopolitan with it’s rising choice in restaurants, all specialising in locally caught fish and seafood. As a family we have tried a few of the offerings, however, as our jaunts ‘down the A13’ are usually spur-of-the-moment trips inspired by a rare ray of sunshine, we have often been turned away from some due to not booking ahead. So it was to our delight and astonishment that we were granted a table in Simply Seafood, in their outdoor terrace – and this is where the fun really began.
The restaurant itself is a converted cockle shed, quite compact, glass-fronted and inhabited by quite smartly dressed diners. We were on the covered terrace, which was also heated, and were one of three tables occupied. The other two were couples – pensioners were one of the couples, and a 50+ man and his lady companion of a similar age. I wouldn’t normally go into detail about fellow diners, however I feel I must, or else neglect to share our lunchtime entertainment – but more of that shortly.
The waitresses in the terrace area clearly weren’t designated to that area, more they popped their heads in as and when they thought necessary when they weren’t running around in the main run of the restaurant, they were however friendly and informative.
We opted for a tasting plate to begin, as couldn’t decide on a starter each from the rather extensive menu. We were rather concerned when it arrived, as it was enormous, however we somehow managed to squeeze most of it in. It consisted of delicious olives and crostini, a tuna carpaccio, a smoked salmon pate, rocket and Parmesan salad, Thai fish cakes and prawn bruschetta.
The prawn bruschetta was unfortunately a complete disappointment, the prawns were overcooked, rubbery and flavourless, and the tomato and basil which accompanied them on the toasted ciabatta were also limp and lacking in any taste at all. Also there was four big portions of this, which was annoying, we dumped the prawn mixture and used the ciabatta to host the smoked salmon pate which, in contrast, was well seasoned, creamy and quite frankly delicious. Similarly the tuna carpaccio was perfectly seasoned and melted in the mouth with a farewell kiss to the tastebuds, and worked so, so well with the rocket and Parmesan. One other small gripe was that the Thai fish cakes, were distinctly lacking in fish, they were made up mostly of potatoes, with a little flaked salmon, and white fish. That said, they were very tasty and certainly got eaten, so it is indeed a minimal complaint.
It was whilst waiting for our starter that the aforementioned “entertainment” began. The younger couple, (who weren’t young by any stretch of the imagination), were seated directly in front of me, they were seated side-by-side, rather than opposite each other and the reason for this soon became clear. In normal dining circumstances they were seated sufficiently far enough away for us to enjoy private conversation of our own and vice versa, however this couple were loud and proud and happy to be heard. It became apparent, very early on during lunch that these were a relatively new couple on maybe their fourth or fifth date. It also became common knowledge on the terrace that this pair had not yet consummated their relationship, however were keen to do so, and fast.
Whilst my mum and I found the amorous antics of this couple quite amusing, it was also vulgar and inappropriate at the least, and it soon became clear that the older couple were unimpressed. The gentleman of the pensioners, was heard loudly stating how ‘disgusting’ certain behaviour was and that he was utterly disappointed in this, the worst meal he’d ever endured in that particular restaurant. To our slight shame, his anger, simply added to our merriment, and we were really quite enjoying ourselves. I must mention that at this point, aside from the language used, there was full-frontal kissing, cuddling, and at one point the woman had her arms around the man’s neck and was resting her head on his chest.
Anyway back to the food – for a main in Simply Seafood you are able to choose between a small or a large plate. This is great for lunch and for those with a smaller appetite. Once again the menu had countless options, but my mum went for a tian of crab with mixed leaf, and I chose sautéed scallops with butternut and parsnip puree and spinach. My mum’s was, a bit like the prawn bruschetta, a little bland and flavourless, and she didn’t really manage to eat much of it, but she was quite full from the first course, so it wasn’t a massive issue.
My scallops were cooked perfectly and were succulent and juicy, releasing delicate flavours to the dish. The butternut and parsnip puree was well done, and as you might imagine, a very sweet side, to the scallops. The spinach was overcooked, and released quite a bit of excess water onto the plate, however it was well seasoned and in all, the dish was very pleasing, and presented beautifully.
By this point we wanted to get back out into the remaining sunshine, so we opted out of dessert. Also the tension in the room was building – the amorous couple had upped their offensive game, and I kid you not, had moved onto finger-sucking, which had actually resulted in a burst of loud laughter from me, but the other couple were clearly annoyed, and we were quite glad to be getting out of there. The waitresses although nice, were completely oblivious to any tensions or wrong-doings in the terrace.
Our meal on the whole wasn’t bad, although we both agreed we’d had better in the area. There were some really delicious elements to the meal, such as the tuna carpaccio, the salmon pate, and my main course dish as a whole was lovely. There were a few disappointments too, the flavourless prawns, and the unappetising crab. We agreed that we would maybe try the restaurant again – as it did show some promise, and if we
weren’t bowled over by the food, we hadn’t had such a funny lunch in ages.
Lunch for two at Simply Seafood came in at around the £45 mark with an array of soft drinks.
To find out more about the restaurant or book a table please visit: