Thursday, 22 February 2018

Curry favour - Kappad

I can’t work out if I’m more loyal to my favourite places as I grow older, or if discovering new stuff just seems more exhausting. Take Indian food, for example. After diligently trying pretty much all the restaurants in town, I’ve finally decided when it comes to South Indian/Sri Lankan, my favourite remains Dosa Special (now into its third incarnation since I started visiting, but still with the same chef and the same peerless food). While for North Indian/Pakistani it’s Chutney, where I take all Antipodean exiles when they come to visit. They may have significantly better weather, but they still have significantly worse curry.

So it was with some trepidation I saw a new restaurant was opening on High Wycombe’s high street, offering Keralan coastal cuisine. Part of me was excited that the number of places in town offering thalis could now fill the fingers of one hand (if you’re in the Simpsons), but part of me felt that slight lurch of irrational irritation that my curiosity meant I’d feel obliged to at least try it out (probably several times), especially as I walk past twice daily. Even if it was only to discover it wasn’t up to the good old tried and tested. Yeah, I know, it’s a tough life.

My first visit was for lunch with work colleagues just before Christmas. All of us imbued by the heady charm of the festive lead-up where you take any excuse to trade the curled up sandwich at your desk for something a little more joyous - maybe involving a festive half…. Although this time I chose the strawberry juice over a bottle of Cobra, despite the latter already having a proved effect of increased joy. The juice was pretty cheery, though, and certainly made the afternoon a little easier.

At lunch, alongside the al la carte menu, they also offer a special curry of the day (meat or veg) or the Kaapad lunch, a platter with a variety of different curries, chutneys, rice and a dosa. For seven quid it would be pretty churlish to complain, even less so when everything was excellent - especially the coconut chicken curry and the fluffy basmati rice -  if a little delicately spiced for a masochist like me. 

My second visit was a post-Christmas lunch with the Ewing and Stealth. Normally a time for parsimony and restraint, we were soon ordering rounds of large bottles of Cobra. January looks so much better from the bottom of a glass. Especially if it’s had a cold beer in it.

Unsurprisingly our drinks also went very well with our selection of beer snacks – a variety of fried bits and pieces including plantain and ornate curls of spiced rice batter, served with a selection of chutneys and sauces. A step up from standing in your dressing gown, scooping lime pickle straight from the jar onto some slightly stale poppadums, which I may or may not have been known to do.

The prawn masala was good; decent prawns, served in a decent number (although there’s never really enough prawns in a prawn curry) with a decent, coconut garlic and ginger-flecked sauce. Hard to get too excited over; would happily eat again. Maybe not a ringing endorsement given I would happily eat most things again, as long as they hadn’t made an unfavourable future appearance or contain boiled eggs. Or both.

On ordering the ‘chicken stew’- chicken cooked in a creamy coconut sauce with carrot, beans, spiced with black pepper, ginger, cloves and curry leaves - the waiter asked if we wanted any chillies in it. Now I realise some people like their food without tears, but it also seemed slightly odd to have something, even with the extra chillies, so toothless on the menu.

It wasn’t that it was bad by any means, just that it was so delicate it seemed to lack any spice at all. Perhaps it's my jaded taste buds but it resembled the creamy filling of a pot pie, the kind of thing created on Food Network by a farmer’s wife from the mid-west, assisted by her brood of children while her ruddy-cheeked husband is out ploughing the fields. (pioneer woman! - TE).

Whatever appeal the kappayum meenum - fish curry with boiled tapioca - lacked on paper (an odd-sounding combination, with the latter addition bringing to mind lumpy school dinners), it made up for by being the dish of the day. The sauce was similar to the prawn curry, but worked even better with the chunks of white fish, while the tapioca was less like frogspawn and more like a root veg mash that had been infused with turmeric and mixed with grated coconut.

Alongside we ate appams, the spongy lentil pancake with a slightly sour taste which is good, but not as good as a paratha or a peshwari naan. And side dishes of okra (officially now my favourite veg to be served in an Indian style  - sorry saag - and rice tossed with lemon , curry leaves and chilli which was fragrant and fluffy in a way that my rice has never been, and probably never will. Still, a good excuse to keep getting takeout to avoid the inevitable disappointment.

While everybody knows that Indian deserts both simultaneously make your teeth ache and smell like the dish full of bits of dead flowers on your Nan’s sideboard, of course the Ewing still wanted to try one.

In fairness the pineapple kesari -  a syrup-soaked cake made of semolina, blended with fresh pineapple, cashew nuts and raisins served warm with vanilla ice cream - was really pretty tasty. Although Stealth was happy to stick with a liquid pudding.

While I'm not sure it quite scales the dizzy heights of my favourite spot, many may want to disagree with me and it already seems to have a fervent fan base of locals. Which is handy, as my fave only has four tables, and I want to make sure I can still get served. Kappad is certainly the slicker choice, if you're looking to impress, and also boasts both an alcohol licence and a loo. Quite useful if you've drunk as many beers as we did.

Wednesday, 31 January 2018

I got (south coast) Seoul

The Ewing has to endure a lot when we go out to eat. Sure, she gets taken to some fancy restaurants and some trendy bars, but she also gets taken across trading estates in Rotherhithe and down dodgy alleyways in Birmingham. Yes, I know, some people may also consider this a positive. Despite the downsides, she also gets the enlightening pleasure of my company during dinner. Again, some people may also consider this a positive….

So, while 2018 may be the year of finally giving my wife an easy life (just kidding, that would be boring) for our final meal out of 2017 we headed to the inauspicious Bournemouth suburb of Charminster, for Korean food, where I promised to be on my very best behaviour.

To drink it had to be the classic rice lager, Hite, which is sweet and fizzy and pretty devoid of merit as a beer, but makes a great accompaniment to bold and spicy Korean flavours. I wanted the Ewing to chose the cinnamon punch, so I could drink it, but she went with the coconut water, complete with chunks of young flesh that get stuck in the straw.

Things started promisingly with some fried dumplings stuffed with kimchi (of which I could have easily eaten several dozen more) and, even better, dduk bok gi, a dish of fish balls, mixed veg and rice cakes stir-fried in a chilli sauce. 

Mercifully, Korean rice cakes aren’t the cylindrical blocks of dust that people nibble earnestly on before destroying a multipack of Quavers, but are cylindrical and chewy - which may not seem like much of an improvement, but are strangely moreish and a great vehicle for the fermented gochujang chilli paste, of which I can’t get enough.

It also made an appearance in my main, a dish of oh sam bulgogi, marinaded pork and squid, stir fried with spring onion and  served on a sizzling platter with a side of sticky rice. Currently pork and cephalopod is my favourite surf and turf combo (although, ask me tomorrow, and I’d tell you scallops and bacon) here both types of protein were expertly cooked as so to remain sweet and bouncy; the squid, particularly, like perfectly coiled springs of joy.

Possibly the zenith/nadir of the Ewing’s experiences as a lapsed blogger’s wife came when the waitress bough her main course, the salmon bibimpab.

Bibimbap, if you weren’t aware, as my wife wasn’t despite my wordy explanation - I should have clocked she wasn’t listening when I saw the glazed look, but I get that a lot, so it’s hard to tell - is a mix of rice, vegetable and protein (usually strips of beef), topped with a raw egg and a squirt of chilli sauce and served in a furiously hot stone bowl. The contents are then quickly mixed with chop sticks to cook to egg/meat and mix in all the crispy bits at the bottom of the dish.

It was a beautiful vision when first bought to the table; a cornucopia of bright julienned veg and perfect cubes of marinated salmon, crowned with a glowing egg yolk; sadly there’s no evidence of this, as our helpful waitress was very keen to jump in and assist the Ewing. This look of abject fear on my wife's face in the above photo, was upon her realising that I had missed the money shot. By all accounts it was very tasty to eat, but you’re going to just have to imagine what it looked like. Here's a picture of the, slightly less photogenic, miso soup instead.

NB – while my wife looks semi-petrified in the picture above, I can assure you was happy to capture an action shot; after I’d stopped laughing.

We also enjoyed some complimentary banchan - pickled or fermented vegetable dishes served with rice - that included broccoli alongside the more familiar beansprouts and kimchi. A surfeit of deliciousness (or as delicious as cold, slightly vinegary broccoli can be) that meant desert defeated us, even after trying to persuade the Ewing for a full five minutes that she really wanted the black sesame ice cream. With two spoons. Somehow, she resisted my charms. 

That aside, I must still have some appeal, as she’s already agreed to our next round of eating adventures. As Thackeray so astutely said; Despair is perfectly compatible with a good dinner, I promise you.

Monday, 22 January 2018

Lunch on the Water - Leeds

I’m generally a pretty accepting sort of a person but there are a few things I remain distrustful of; when my wife says she's 'nearly ready', the arrival boards in First Wessex bus shelters, and bars/restaurants who offer both pizzas and burgers on their menu.

Despite being two of my very favourite foodstuffs, when you see them united you know one is almost definitely going to suck; maybe (probably) both. While it’s usually the pizza that's the first casualty - such a simple thing, but so hard to get right without the (costly) kit – bad burgers are also grimly familiar.

One place that has successfully managed it is the Belgrave in Leeds, but that’s because they have a pizza concession from Dough Boys at the front and burgers from the Patty Smith’s Burger Co. at the back, meaning you can mix and match from two specialists; which is cheating, really, but great if you fancy a slice with some fries on the side.

The Belgrave also serve a wide selection of Very Nice beer, so it’s pretty hard to be persuaded to try other places for lunch. That's until I saw that the team behind them had a latest venture - Water Lane Boat Lane, down by the docks - that also kept a handsomely stocked bar, and were offering a menu of both pizza and burgers. Perfect for the hungry, thirsty and the undecided.

Even though the brewery is just around the corner, and we had our customary visit scheduled for the following day, I couldn't turn down a half of the Blueberry and Mosaic black IPA, from the Northern Monk Patrons Project.

I'm not always convinced by BIPA - is it a stout or is it a pale ale? - but I really enjoyed the balance of the fruitiness from the berries with the herbal funk of the hops and the bitter edge of the roasted malt. At a hefty 7%, it's a sipper, not a slurper, but, not to give too much away in the first few paragraphs, I liked it (and the food) so much I came back for another half the very next day.

Their pizza dough is made using just three ingredients: organic Yorkshire flour, water and salt. A promising start, but pretty much all you can put in a pizza dough, to be fair. More excitingly, after slow proving for twenty four hours, their pies are cooked in their Small Victories brick oven, handmade in Naples and shipped to these shores. And, best of all, they are buy one get one for a quid on Sundays and Mondays. 

They also offer interesting, but not too outlandish, flavour combos such as prosciutto, buffalo mozzarella and pickled radicchio that I split with the Ewing. This is my kinda pizza; a puffy cornicione; blistered from the heat of the oven; a pleasingly chewy slightly sour base; and just enough toppings to keep things interesting without overwhelming the dish's inherent simplicity (or giving it a soggy bottom).

We also shared the ox cheek with horseradish, san marzano tomatoes and mozarella, which was the Ewing's preferred pie. Combining rich chunks of meat, like the best beef stew, with zippy horseraduish, sweet tomatoes and melty pools of milky cheese, it was another fine example of how simple, yet majestic, a good pizza can be. 

My cousins, who had come to meet us in a break between festive shopping, also enjoyed the classic margarita - the benchmark to which discerning diner Georgia approved; the salami and cured pepperoni; and the kale, pecorino, black olive and truffle oil; which sounded virtuous, but had two types of cheese to make up for it.

As I may have already revealed, we liked it so much that we went back the very next day. Prompted by the prospect of more blueberry beer and the fact that Tuesdays are buy one burger, get one for a pound. Time for the litmus test; could they pull off the double?

As with the day before, we attempted the 'sharing' thing, stating with the Small Victories’ burger - an aged Yorkshire beef patty, cheese, toasted sesame bun, bacon jam, tomato, lettuce, pickles, and Small Victories burger sauce. In a saturated market this was a competent, if unremarkable effort.

Surprisingly, the standout was the veggie option; a beetroot, white bean and fennel patty on a toasted sesame bun, with tomato jam, pickles, burger sauce and salad. While I was worried it sounded rather worthy, it reminded me a bit of the Indian vada pav - a fried spiced potato fritter served in a bun, and one of my favourite Indian snacks. This was possibly even better - gently spiced, earthy, sweet and crisp. To paraphrase the Ewing, a bit of a taste sensation

With the sun reflecting on the Leeds and Liverpool shipping canal outside the window, I reflected on how a decent pizza/burger double - with a great beer and keen service - really is possible. I'm still working on expectations when it comes to how long it's going to take for my wife to finish getting ready. (I'm still working on expectations of when you will be able to find your own things - TE).

Wednesday, 10 January 2018

Time to split shots

I've got mixed emotions when it comes to coffee. It begins with a strong start - there aren't many smells better than freshly brewed cup of joe - but often quickly descends into a bitter middle and a lingering regret on the finish. A metaphor for many things in life, I increasingly find. 

Although I mostly subsist on pints of PG Tips (pretty hard to mess up - although a colleague regularly manages it) I do enjoy some java. I'm a big fan of the Red Eye at Boscanova in Bournemouth - a mug of filter with an extra shot of espresso, although it does lead to a propensity for waffling even more than normal. I also always look forward to the coffee at the Westminster Archives; while it's not particularly notable, it's strong, there's lots of it and it also comes with a decent number of Jammy Dodgers.

Possibly my favourite caffeinated libation of all, and one I now customarily look forward to on our bi-annual visits to Leeds, is the split shot. Googling hasn’t thrown up too much on the history of the drink (the name also used to describe several other beverages, including an espresso with half the caffeine probably better named What's the Point) but my uncultured understanding is that here it’s a double espresso ‘spilt’ into a single and a piccolo – the definition of the latter being either a ‘long’ macchiato or a ‘short’ flat white; do keep up at the back – so the coffee can be tasted both on its own and with milk. (oh, i am totes lost - TE).

It's a drink I first discovered when looking for tips for a beverage to help keep my eyes open on the slog back down the M1 (in the passenger seat? - TE). The lovely folk on Twitter lead me to the Light - literally and figuratively, where I discovered the incongruous La Bottega Milanese, complete with astroturf carpet, exposed pipework, and rickety metal stools. 

Their mantra is "If it’s not from Italy, it’s from Yorkshire", and the beans for their drinks are all roasted locally, and the milk is from local farms. And while I probably know as much about coffee as Trump does about uranium, I enjoyed La Bottega Milanese’s enough to make it a regular part of our last day in the North tradition. The espresso provides a short sharp shock, while the piccolo - I’m not usually a big fan of milk in coffee – treads the right side of the line between sweet and sickly.

The coffee isn’t the only draw, as they also serve a selection of traditional imported Italian deli items, cakes and sweets, including my favourite, pasticcini, a mini cannoli with a crisp blistered outer shell that tastes like it’s made from crunchy sugar brittle, which is filled with Nutella or a sweet pistachio paste. The perfect foil for the bitter coffee. There are also various pasta bakes, pastries and ciabattas for those who value their dentistry, or are in need of a little more sustenance.

Despite being a creature of habit at heart I don't really like change, but I recently fell down a rabbit hole looking at the Noisette Bakery Instagram page, after finding out their cakes are now served at North Star Coffee down at Leeds Dock. I knew then, even after a weekend gorging on fine foods and wine with the family, I needed a Morning Cake in my life.

It was also a good excuse to explore another part of town as, to my shame, after visiting this fine city for the best part of forty years, I had never made this far down the River Aire. I can highly recommend  the schlep though, the area reminding me a bit of Sunday walks in London across Mudchute and the Isle of Dogs, and especially lovely on a crisp and clear winter's morning.

Originally set up as a roastery, working with independent and ethical coffee producers across the globe, they have recently expanded their site to include a cafe and general store. So now you can now watch them roasting grinding and packaging their beans through the glass partition while you sit back and drink the fruits of their labour.

Any beverage with Christmas in the title usually invokes the fear of drinking a liquid scented candle – although I did build-up a bit of a gingerbread latte habit at uni while burning the midnight oil.  Thankfully this isn't fancy flavoured stuff, with added syrups and spices, but a Brazil/Guatemala/Costa Rica blend that’s billed as naturally possessing notes of date, orange, marzipan, red apple. 

In all honesty, to a primitive palate like mine, it tasted like a cup of coffee, albeit a pretty serious one; the espresso, particularly, provided a swift smack round the chops, while the addition of a lick of milk balanced out the piccolo a bit without making it taste like Mellow Bird.

The Morning Cake - vanilla infused sour cream batter layered with tonka bean and topped with a spiced almond streusel - was just as good it sounded.  Possibly better. The ethereally light and fluffy texture meant it slipped down far too easily considering I'd just eaten my first breakfast (limited edition Vegemite, an early Xmas pressie from my sister in Oz, toast courtesy of my cousin).

As well as selling bags of their own coffee, there is also a small selection of local goodies including Leeds Bread Co-Op and Proper Nutty peanut butter from Huddersfield. After persuading the Ewing that we needed a loaf of the former (her sourdough starter is currently in hibernation at the back of the fridge, although I fear it's going to burst to life, like Zuul, at any given moment) it seemed prudent to get a jar of the latter.

We also picked up a bag of their coffee, described as 'washed micro lot' from Guatemala. Your guess is as good as mine, but it makes a decent cup of bean juice to go alongside my crunchy peanut butter on sourdough toast. Enjoyed with absolutely no bitterness or regrets (and maybe an extra jammy dodger on the side).

Saturday, 23 December 2017

A Festive Test

It's the most wonderful time of the year; a time to eat drink, be merry, get heartburn and have an argument. And, with this in mind, I devised a Festive Test Treat that would cunningly tick all of the above. A visit to our, newly opened, local carvery for three courses - all featuring the mighty, and clearly on-trend, yorkshire pudding - all drenched in lashings of faint regret and gravy.

Things started reasonable promisingly, with a decent selection of ale. Being a Marston's pub, the range featured a selection from their stable including Hobgoblin, Ringwood and Pedigree amber ale. I went with the, seldomly seen so far south, Sneck Lifter, from Jennings Brewery based in Cumbria. A traditional dark bitter, perfect for a wintery afternoon.

I had ordered the carvery as my main and was handed a golden ticket to the gravy train, with a promise the staff would alert us when the Ewing's main was nearly ready to leave the kitchen. So we sat back and relaxed with our pints, while fifty per cent of us watched Spurs put five past Stoke on Final Score and fifty per cent of us tried to solve a remote work-related incident involving a malfunctioning automatic door, both over the screams of the children running amok around our table. All pointers to a great day out.

Just as a member of staff appeared to give us the heads up that the rest of the food was on the way, another arrived with the rest of the food. All of it; our 'sharer' starter and the Ewing’s main. After rearranging the space on the table to fit the plates, a confused voice piped up; ‘are there two, or three of you', while we all turned a stared at my Tottenham beanie, occupying the empty seat next to me. 

Not that our confirmation of the former had any bearing anyway, as both staff vanished as quickly as they had appeared, leaving us with a surfeit of batter-based products and some sympathetic/horrified (delete as appropriate) looks from the tables around us at the mountain of food in front of us. Well, I had promised it would be a test, just not of my wife's patience.

I’m still not really sure whether it’s better or worse to assume that our invisible friend wanted to take down a whole camembert, rather than it being an appetite sharpener, but I was thankful the carvery call hadn’t been more timely as it gave me the chance to fully concentrate on the cheese. 

This proved a lucky thing, as congealing camembert in a Yorkshire pudding is as tough to eat as it sounds, although also delicious, especially when paired with the random handful of trail mix that adorned it. I'm not sure the warm and wilted leaves were adding much though, other than a metaphor for an overriding sense of wilted despondency.

The Yorkshire wrap was a behemoth of a pudding, stuffed with a whole roast dinner, before being carefully rolled up in grease proof paper adorned with faintly nauseating faux dictionary definitions of made-up words like 'hyper delicious'. With nothing to compare it to, the Ewing proclaimed it pretty good, if a little unwieldy to eat. As is the issue with many wraps, it also suffered from unfilled ends, but they did provide a bonus jug of gravy for dunking.

As there was already roast potatoes nestled in the wrap, they decide to serve it with a wholly superfluous - but actually very tasty – pile of chips and, even more randomly, ramekins of mushy peas and pickled cabbage. While I love mushy peas, here they provided a distracting sweet gloopiness; the pickled cabbage however, was pretty inspired, bringing some well needed crunch and tang. 

The carvery was everything a carvery should be; a hammy guy serving slices of ham with a smile (I also tried turkey, but skipped the dangerously desiccated beef in case we drew more attention to ourselves when the Ewing has to perform the Heimlich manoeuvre). Add oversized yorkies, overcooked carrots, ladles of gluey gravy (which tasted surprisingly good), squares of rubbery stuffing, decent roasties, and a wan but tasty cauli cheese, and it was all I ever wanted. Seriously. And a veritable bargain at £6.45.

The fun didn't finish there, as I insisted we stayed to sample the delights of the 'zingy raspberry yorkshire pudding sundae'. A potential aberration that tasted far better than it sounded. In fact, I'd go so far to say I really enjoyed it; a nostalgic mix of Mr Whippy van sauce, fresh cream and ice cream, crowned with strips of pud (which actually worked) and garnished with disc of diabetes. Even the Ewing smiled; although that may have been the constant supply of Sneck Lifter I was bribing her with.

Overall the whole experience was just like a microcosm of the festive season - crying babies, over-indulging, too much beer and a roller coaster of emotions, from elation to despair. All over the space of a few hours. Plus bonus yorkshire puddings. Pretty perfect really. Happy Christmas, one and all, see you on the other side; have fun and don't forget the Rennies.