Wednesday, 14 March 2018

OPM for the masses

Despite recent and relentless ubiquity, burgers have unfaltering kept a place in my heart, and around my waistline. I still like photographing them, I still like looking at them and I still like eating them. Especially the latter. 

They say pictures speak louder than words, I’m gonna keep this post (pretty) short; While I’m not known for my brevity, in this case even my blurry photos (a miracle any are actually in focus considering the gravy and burger sauce all over my hands) tell the story of how happiness can be sandwiched between two buns.

Nestled in a railway arch in Digbeth - they originally started life at the acclaimed Digbeth Dining Club – it’s got a kind of funky Bermondsey Spa Terminus vibe going on. Although, thankfully, here they seem to have also invested in some heating, so I didn’t have to sit there in my many layers as I did on many Saturday mornings at Kernel, back in the heady days when you could still sit and drink beer there.

The beer here is also good, with the draft stuff being provided by Siren; from leafy Finchampstead, near Reading. I had a schooner of the ever reliable Soundwave IPA, while the Ewing got stuck in with Forest for the Trees, their limited edition 8.6 percent winter DIPA. A steady start to the day, even it was mostly wasted on her, as she thought they had been swapped around she was drinking mine anyway. 

 As I’ve pontificated before, my ideal burger falls into two camps. My favourite is the simple and straightforward – based on the iconic McDonald’s cheeseburger; meat, cheese (plastic) onion, ketchup, mustard, pickles. Occasionally bacon; always streaky. Sometimes, however, it’s nice to mix it up a bit and go with salad; nothing too fancy, just shredded lettuce, tomato and mayo. A la the BK Whopper.

I’m usually pretty adamant about keeping the two burger camps separate, but the Cheesy E at OPM mixed gooey cheese with pickles, onion, lettuce and Boss Man sauce, a burger sauce based on the heavenly collision between ketchup and mayo. And it sounded pretty good. (and looked pretty FILTHY  too - TE).

It tasted even better; a mix of tangy sauce, crunchy iceberg, gooey cheese and juicy beef (doubled up, obvs) it just held it’s structural integrity long enough for me to hoover it up, although it was a very close-run thing. The best burger I have had in a long time.  

I had planned to have the naked chips, or maybe just the slaw, or maybe just share the Ewing’s chips…(but I don't like sharing, remember - TE) but when I saw the poutine special, I knew what I had to do. A traditional dish from Quebec consisting of fries, fresh cheese curds and sauce brune - essentially chips cheese and brown gravy – here the gravy is made from beer and onions and the whole dish is topped with pickled chillies. 

While I'm a Southerner at heart - I do love a saveloy and normally prefer my chips with ketchup – fried potatoes and gravy are the perfect bedfellows, especially with a bit of spice.

The Ewing, in an uncharacteristic deviation, chose the chicken burger. Mostly tempted by the fact they use battered thigh instead of breast, and that it was served with Alabama white barbecue sauce (you can also add Frank’s hot sauce to the mix). Again, this was a peerless example, with a special shout out going to the locally baked brioche buns (also used for the beef) with their perfectly blistered tops.

She also chose the, instant hit on Instagram, ODM fries topped with Cajun spice and slaw. Another fail-safe combo of hot and cool; the crunchy cabbage and fluffy spud peppered with the punch of coriander and lime, sriracha mayo, crispy fried onions and fresh spring onion.

Initially claiming not to be in the market for dessert, instead asking for the bill, it didn’t take long to retract our request and ask for some homemade sticky toffee pudding to share. A good call as this was a light and fluffy sponge with a good (if not liberal enough) helping of toffee sauce. While I think it may be the ultimate application for clotted cream (don’t at me) the vanilla ice cream served alongside was also pretty good.

While I’ve pretty much failed to show the brevity promised above, I’ll keep the wrap-up short. In conclusion: go here; have a burger and a beer; share some OPM fries (or, if you’re greedy like me, get your own); thank me later.

Thursday, 8 March 2018

Life's a Peach

Having previously enjoyed nearly a decade of Not Working Monday, I can report that it’s a day many other workers, especially in the hospitality industries, also enjoy off. So while I would enjoy my very own Bank Holiday weekend every other week, it also meant many of the places I wanted to visit when I wasn’t working were shut. 

So, exciting news for anyone still in the Monday Club, you’re in luck. Not only is Peach Garden - tucked away in Ladywell Walk in Birmingham's Chinatown - open, it also offers a special of roast piglet on the first two days of the week. Something that would surely even entice Garfield from his post-weekend torpor, especially when you see the good, in all their glory, hanging in the steamy window.

It's a basic, no frills kind of place (the best kind of place) where, even at a little past eleven the morning, nearly every table was taken. As the only white faces on our visit, we were also the only ones given forks with our chopsticks. A badge I wore with a certain pride sense of pride while trying to demonstrate my best pincer technique.

Strong chinese tea comes in teacups that wouldn't have looked out of place at my Nan's, but be wary if you like yours with added sweetener, as the sugar bowl is filled with a fearsome chilli oil that glows with latent menace.

While the three roast meat and rice is the most lauded dish on the menu (a choice between pork belly, char sui, roast duck and soya chicken) I was firmly focussed on the special. Alongside solo piglet, (as a potion for the table or on top of rice) you can also throw in a choice of another meat, so I added a duck leg for good measure.

What quickly followed was attainment of some kind of porcine nirvana. Slices of meat with, surprisingly, rich porky flavour, edged with a little creamy fat and topped with strips of paper-thin, burnished crackling. The duck may have been even better, the subcutaneous fat almost rendered into the tender flesh, contrasted against the crunch of the sticky lacquered skin.

Alongside the saucer of sticky sauce that’s served with the meat (which tastes a lot like hoi sin, although someone more enlightened may know better) and a slug of fiery, crunchy chilli oil, I can’t think of many more glorious plates of food. A wonderful balance of textures and flavours that even gets me excited about white rice (near the bottom of the pile of best carbs), being the perfect foil for the layers of crunch and fat and heat that sit upon it. A dish that is so brilliantly simple, yet masterful at the same time and always makes me feel a bit little in awe (and a little bit fatter) each time I eat it.

The Ewing went with the soya chicken, something that I have never given much thought to try with all the pig and duck on offer - but, apart from being rather cold, was very well received. Sweet and yielding, it’s also a little leaner than the other options and makes a nice change of pace (words spoken as a firm Wife of Jack Spratt).

Following Giles Coren's sage advice in 'How to Eat Out' - not a sentence I'm often troubled to write - I also ordered a dish of gai lan, stir fried with garlic. Despite the price (still very good value at just over eight quid) it was, as always, a good call. The crisp, ferric greens making a welcome break from the salt, fat and carbs, which at least provided an illusion of healthiness.

As it was the Ewing and I's wedding anniversary later that week, it was fortuitous that we found this 'lover biscuit' - more commonly known as a wife cake, stuffed with winter melon, almond paste, and sesame - at the China Court Bakery, opposite the restaurant.

While not a huge fan of the above (something I should have learnt after trying them before on several occasions), they also had excellent, fluffy double pineapple char sui buns, (that contain NO pineapple, imagine that - TE) that were buy two get one free on our visit. One half-bun for each pork-permeated year we've been married. Pretty perfect for a pair of piglets. (love you babe x - TE)

Wednesday, 28 February 2018

Bang Bang - zone 4 style

If you were to ask me for a breakdown of my time over the last couple of months the answer would be thirty percent work, twenty percent asleep, ten per cent watching the winter Olympics and fifty percent in IKEA.

Now, I like IKEA and all (I really do) but even I can reach my limit of processed meat products. Hard to believe, I know, but when you start craving your meatballs with spaghetti and not with mash and jam, it’s probably time to look for a different dinner option. 

Fortuitously Bang Bang Oriental has just (re)opened on the old site of the much missed Oriental City in Colindale; a cavernous food court that saw much gnashing and wailing of teeth when it closed in 2008. While it’s impossible to read a review/blog post bemoaning how far Barnet is from civilisation (read zones 1 and 2), for our intents and purposes it was only another quarter of an hour around the North Circular. 

Normally this would be a sentence that would strike fear into the coldest heart, but in this case a viable option compared to eating yet another slice of Daim cake (which shows you just how many slices of Daim cake I have actually eaten recently).

Of course the very thing that makes a food court so exciting - especially to the perennially peckish, like the Ewing and I - is also what threatens to overwhelm; the choice. So many options, from so many different cuisines, yet the fear of picking the wrong dish and ending up with the unenviable food envy looms large over every decision. 

Being fully aware of the high chance of a hangry melt down from either of us at any given time, I had already trawled Instagram for the best looking bowls of food, figuring that it would be a much easier choice from the comfort of my own armchair, but we also made time for a schlep about, just to make sure we weren’t missing out on anything. (imperative - TE).

Having done my research I headed straight to the back for a bowl of roast duck noodle soup from Four Seasons, the Queensway. stalwart. While my parent's often used to take us for lunch in Bayswater - at the, now sadly closed, branch of Mr Wu, where I used to demolish unholy piles of sticky ribs, salt and pepper wings and and seaweed with a voraciousness that only a teenager can - I've never eaten at FS. Something I was looking to remedy.

Now, I'm pretty sure that, without eating there for comparison, this outpost probably pales insignificantly compared to the original, but for eight quid I was very happy with my generous portion of burnished duck and springy noodles, topped with chinese leaf and chopped spring onion. As a bonus, the duck was also boneless, making it a slightly more attractive proposition as I was chowing down.

While not the biggest noodle soup fan - no matter how good the broth, the noodles never seem to end up tasting of anything; plus all the splash back, if you're as messy an eater as I am  - nevertheless I enjoyed the restorative charms of this, though I did upend a saucer of chill oil, negating its soothing qualities somewhat.

Following my advice, the Ewing went with the laksa from Coconut Tree. A bounteous bowl of prawns, tofu puffs and noodles in a rich and spicy coconut curry broth. Apart from the fact her choice of lunch stall and mine were at opposite ends of the cavernous space - necessitating someone (me) having to navigate a kamikaze run clutching a tray of boiling liquid so we could be reunited for lunch -  this proved a strong choice. (oh Roscoe I fear you exaggerate somewhat - TE).

We also picked a selection of tarts from Wonder Bake including custard, pandan and coconut,. My love of custard tarts has diminished somewhat after over enthusiastic incidents in both Hong Kong and Lisbon, but the later pair were particularly excellent for breakfast the next day.

In the rush to negotiate timings and transport two bowls of soup to an agreed location in tandem (which sounds more like the plot of a bad Cold War spy thriller rather than trying to ensure our food arrived at roughly the same time) we didn’t have time to pick up drinks before eating . Due to some, long forgotten, misdemeanour, I owed the Ewing a favour, so agreed to schlep about after to pick up refreshments.

I had the classic milk bubble tea with black tapioca pearls; still a firm favourite and very enjoyable here, save for the fact they had run out of large cups and someone else wanted to share, despite having their own drink…. While strawberry juice with salted cheesecake might sound pretty odd, it somehow worked; the sweet sharp fruit contrasting with the smooth philly-style topping.

As several people have pointed out before me, why come to Colindale when you could go to Chinatown? Of course you could replace Chinatown with pretty much anything and still have a valid point…. In all seriousness though, if I lived near here I’d be having the last laugh.  

Yeah, it’s not perfect; it lacks a little roughness around the edges; the pricing on some dishes seem a little steep (and the portions a little small); and, like anywhere, I’m sure there are few duff dishes to be had. But for variety and convenience Bang Bang would be a welcome addition to most neighbourhoods.

Even after such a fine lunch, my self-imposed pork moratorium could only last so long. So after several long hours (literally) touring the cavernous bowels of hell, cramming many mdf products in a wonky-wheeled trolley, it seemed only right that a hot dog, crowned with fairground sweet onions and crinkle-cut pickles, should be my reward. Viva IKEA.

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.