Monday, 26 June 2017

Where's the beef?

Our recent month away in Australia and Singapore meant elevated consumption levels. Which, considering how much I normally consume, was an impressive amount of eating and drinking. In my head, I planned to return home, leaf through the thousands (literally) of photos and bang out a few blog posts before the jet lag had time to kick in. 

Of course, reality is the conjectured state of things as they actually exist, and that meant spending the days following our return on the sofa in my pants, eating cold pizza thinking about finally unpacking my suitcase (I’m almost there).

Although the blog has been on the back-burner, I do want to log the most pertinent details of the trip somehow - not wanting all those gained pounds and dropped dollars to be for nothing. And while there were plenty of highlights, which I’m hoping to compile into some sort of roundup, two meals we enjoyed - at LPs Quality Meats and Hubert, both in Sydney - stand out.

There are many parallels, not least the bovine centrepieces of both feasts, but the most significant factor proceeding each meal was what had happened the night before. More accurately, how hung-over we were. In fact, if the food hadn’t been so memorable, there may not have been a blog post at all, as all my other memories are decidedly hazy.

Our meal at LPs Quality Meats in Chippendale came the day after my brother in law, Robbie G, had taken us on the inner-west pub crawl. An all-dayer that ended hours later with us in the Coogee Bay Hotel and the Ewing’s wallet in some bar in Newtown. 

Wallet safely retrieved the following morning (thanks, Dad), we decided to burn off the excesses by walking over to Chippendale through Centennial Park. A nice idea until you consider it was nearing sunset, so cue loud dive -bombing parakeets coming to roost and a sky darkly swirling with bats. Not the best thing when you’re still feeling sketchy form a day on the high ABV IPAs.

We arrived at the trendy – think dark, loud and stripped back - smoking specialists early on a Saturday evening and were given the last two spots at the bar. Despite our parlous state, I do love a bar seat and it was a pleasure to see into the kitchen, and chat with the bar staff throughout our meal (who made the most delicious looking and TASTING cocktails, proper cocktails, that taste like they are only made of alcohol, like they should be - TE). It also made it hard to turn down a beverage and with the beers coming from the Grifter Brewery, the second stop on the previous day’s tour, it would have been rude not to.

Thick slices of Applewood smoked sea trout were served with crème fraiche, crispy deep-fried capers and dill. As Julie Andrews may have sung, some of my favourite things. For a restaurant that specialised in the meaty stuff, this was possibly my dish of the day, simple well-balanced and a joy to eat. The generous portioning also meant even the Ewing didn’t mind sharing (lets get this straight, what I don't like about sharing is when the person you're 'sharing' with eats at double the speed as you and seems to be sharing the the time it takes to eat the food not how much - that's one of my issues with 'sharing' - TE) .

A tranche of glossy duck liver pate came with olives, jalapenos, dijon mustard and thick slices of homemade dark sourdough. Light and fluffy in texture, more like a parfait, it was perfectly piqued by the pickles and the excellent smoky bread. An exemplary beginning to the meal.

When you’re feeling more than a little delicate, ordering boudin – a smoked sausage made with pig’s blood - may seem like a questionable choice but this was light and delicate and exceptionally good. More like a Spanish morcilla than our own denser black pudding, the filling was lightly spiced and studded with sweet currants, nuts and chunks of back fat. Shards of pickled celery provided a crisp and tangy counterpoint.

Any full-blooded carnivore would have felt a pang of regret passing up their other smoked meats – crispy-skinned porchetta, lamb stuffed with merguez sausage and chicken rubbed with dill and paprika, anyone?– but with the, now iconic, beef rib on the menu there was only ever going to be one choice.

Like everything else we had eaten before it, it was faultless. The spice-rubbed bark giving way to tender beef, shot through with the tell-tale pink rings of properly slow-smoked meat . Sticky, smoky, juicy, fatty - pretty soon I was like a dog with a bone, only with slightly less decorum. And, as an avowed condiment queen, I didn’t even need the chimichurri sauce and chilli sauces alongside (although I may have eaten them with a teaspoon anyway).

There were also greens alongside, to placate the Ewing. Although I'm not really sure fried brussels sprouts with chunks of ricotta salata and almonds was doing us much good overall. Tasted bloody good, though.

Pudding – obviously a given, they had even kindly offered to box up our leftover rib so we had room – was a toss-up between the light and refreshing coconut and watermelon granita and the pudding chomeur, or poor man’s pudding – a baked sponge cake drowned in smoked Canadian maple syrup and topped with ice cream. I say it was a toss-up, it wasn’t really even close. Cake wins all day long, especially with the ringing endorsements from the bar staff.

And, although the Ewing was adamant she was ‘never drinking again’, or certainly not until my niece’s christening the following afternoon, seeing a succession of old fashions being mixed weakened her resolve and she had soon ordered one to go alongside desert.

For our trip to Hubert -  a belated 40th birthday celebration for the Ewing, very kindly organised by my sister and brother-in-law - we somehow contrived to be in an even more delicate state after a Monday night/Tuesday morning merrily spent glugging Prosecco in our old friend the CBH. Well, I use the word ‘all’, loosely. The Roscoe’s were suffering, while Robbie G and the birthday girl were displaying a little more resilience.

Time Out’s restaurant of the year, Hubert is a hip subterranean hangout in Sydney’s CBD. French in influence, as I descended the stairs the dark wooden panelling reminded me a bit of going down to the Bar Americain, at old favourite Brasserie Zedel, minus the gold and marble. While it’s not quite the hot ticket it was, reservations are only available for parties of six or more, so thankfully Robbie G had managed to get there early and stake out one of the prime seats in the house; for once, the Roscoe’s weren’t relishing the idea of hanging out waiting in the bar.

We did rally ourselves for an aperitif; a selection of beers for a thirsty Rob; my sister originally requested a bloody mary but was told they don’t serve them due to the fact ‘we like to make all our juices fresh’. Why this precluded tomato juice, wasn’t quite clear, but she settled for a margarita anyway; a Campari (best hangover drink ever) and grapefruit took the edge of my lurching stomach; and a stiff martini, served in its own little bottle with the choice of an olive or a twist, helped sharpen the Ewing’s appetite.

The menu is comprised of 'sharing plates' of various sizes that involved a good five minute run through from our server, something that always makes my heart sink. While I would happily of eaten any (all) of it, I did find the whole process slightly exhausting, especially in my delicate frame of mind. I also wanted the steak tartare, while the birthday girl wanted the cote de beouf, so I had to exercise the art of compromise to avoid all ending up with gout.

A basket of crusty baguette, like the entrance, also reminded me of Zedel, although it cost six bucks here (in Piccadilly it’s free, with refills if you ask nicely) and, strangely given the silver bread basket, the butter comes served in the little paper pots you get filled with ketchup in McDonalds.

The malakov, a deep fried ball of greueyre served with slices of pickled cucumber, was as great as it sounds. Although, if you’re as greedy as me, a quarter just isn’t gonna cut it. No matter how nicely it’s sliced up by your sister.

I’m not sure whether I like snails, or just the huge amounts of garlicky butter they are normally baked with, especially when soaked up with chunks of crusty bread. Here they are served gratinated with XO sauce –  made with dried scallop, red chili pepper, dried ham, dried shrimp, garlic - a funky chinese twist that matched the sweet little (in a snail’s case, size matters and small is beautiful) molluscs just as well as the more familiar brashness of the allium.

Wine, although not from Rob's Spanish selection (kinda odd given the big French influence in the food), was decent. (Honestly, I don't have huge recall of the finer details, but i know I gamely drunk my glass. Such a trooper.)

Torn between the duck – a limited number are roasted, with a reto orange sauce everyday – and the steak, we almost ended up with both when a tiny waitress appeared with a huge platter of the former and nearly unceremoniously dropped it over the Ewing’s head. Thankfully disaster was averted by a passing colleague, and soon we were united with our rightful main, the Rangers Valley rib eye served with roasted garlic and sauce choron.

To my shame, I could only manage two slices; but I don’t think the others were complaining that much. Although I was complaining about the amount of roasted garlic the Ewing had eaten. For days after. Also, sauce choron, a bernaise with tomato, may even be better than the original. And that is high praise indeed.

What goes better with fried meat in a rich sauce than fried potatoes in a rich sauce. pommes anna, wafer thin layers of crispy potatoes upended in a puddle of beurre blanc, bought to mind the lauded confit potatoes at the Quality Chop House that still flood my Instagram feed in all there jagged golden glory, but with an added pool of buttery sauce to soak into the crispy edges.

There was also a kimchi gratin, the spicy, fermented Korean cabbage baked with a topping of buttery breadcumbs that made a surprisingly punchy foil for the richness of the meat and spuds.

The Vacherin, a frozen bombe of sauternes ice cream with a honeycomb, lemon and mandarin jelly centre, appeared covered in piped meringue, giving it the appearance of a frilly doll that guard the spare loo roll that my Nan still proudly displays in her bathroom. I'm going to have to take Rob and the Ewing's word this was good, as they are the only ones who tried it. But it certainly didn't hang about for long.

Unusually, the melon en surprise was the dish I was most excited to try, despite my love hate relationship with the fruit. A hollowed out Santa Claus melon, topped with a layer of young coconut sorbet, arrived containing a 'surprise' of finger lime, sorrel jelly and some other bits of deliciously refreshing shizzle, just what the doctor ordered. (He probably would have ordered an early night and a week off the sauce, but hey).

So, two wonderful; meals, and it wasn’t just the beefy centrepieces linked them. There was also the charming surroundings and the charming staff, expertly mixed drinks and excellent food. And of course, the sparkling company, even if we had lost our fizz a little. (Thanks Emily and Rob  - TE xxx)

Thursday, 27 April 2017

Coach Class

Many moons ago, before this blog was even a bun in the oven, the Hand and Flowers - Tom Kerridge’s lauded two Michelin Star gastropub – was about as close to a local as the Ewing and I had.  The perfect spot for some lovely grub and a pint of local ale, and somewhere we still haven't really managed to replace.

This may seem like a fanciful story for two impoverished library workers, especially if you consider it currently has a six month plus long waiting list for dinner and mains on the ala carte menu starting at thirty quid. But back in the good old days, when the pub had ‘just the one’ star, they offered a two course set lunch for a tenner - including their fabulous bread and famed whitebait amouse bouche - with pudding for an extra £3.50. Plus you could easily get a table on a Monday (the library workers’ traditional day off) at a few days’ notice.

Sadly, for someone who remembers having three courses, pints of beer and cheeseboard and still getting out for £50 for two, those days are long gone. Although, at thirty quid for three courses, the set lunch remains decent value. And they still serve the whitebait.

But, while the H&F might not now be the place for an impromptu late lunch, Chef Kerridge’s march on Marlow continues with The Coach, his second pub on the same road - complete with all day opening hours, small plate ‘pub grub’ menu and, best of all for someone with a last minute bonus afternoon off work,  no reservations.

Being a solo diner, I slotted instantly in to a spare barstool, complete with view of the open kitchen, and was soon nursing a glass of house red and a (pristine) copy of the Guardian, offered from a wide selection of papers by the charming bar staff. 

It might be an unfortunate symptom of the modern age, but there’s nothing worse than feeling at a loose end when eating on your own so I was pleased to have the tragi-comic diversion of the day’s current affairs, interspersed with tragi-comic updates from the Magical Stealth on WhatsApp, to keep me amused until my food arrived.

The menu is essential ‘pub tapas’,  with the size of dishes being roughly proportionate to their (not inconsequential) price tag. As I was on my own, and so mercifully spared from sharing, I pretty much stuck to a classic ‘starter, main, pud’ order of proceedings, which began mushroom risotto ‘Claude Bosi’.

Whether you think that this is an improvement on the classic Italian version would depend on how wedded you are to your carbs, but I did find myself strangely impressed by the tiny uniform pieces of perfectly cooked mushroom, bound in a cheesy sauce and topped with a dreft of Parmesan like fresh snow on the top of Monte Bianco.

My next plate was a little closer to home; pigeon from the West Wycombe Estate (a far more appetising prospect than High Wycombe High Street), served with trompettes and pearl barley. I often judge a good dish by its gravy, and this was some of the best. Shimmery and shiny with a deep meatiness that complimented the blushing pigeon and nutty grains.

Alongside were the famed pomme boulangeres, or bakers taters in English. Arriving in their own saucepan, topped with a disc of crisp potato shards that had been brushed with another slick of glossy meat juices,  I doubt you could spend a better £2.50 anywhere.

Although ordered from the ‘non-meat’ section of the menu (with a ‘contains meat' caveat in brackets after) make no mistake, this one's for the carnivores. As soon as the tuber lid was lifted I was greeted by a heap of dark and sticky braised meat on top of further layers of slow cooked potato; a satisfying sight and they tasted even better.

Pud was a warm chocolate and peanut tart with a ball of salted caramel ice cream perched in a chocolate tuile basket on top. Like everything that had come before, this was a superlative plate of food - the friable pastry giving way to a perfectly oozy, nutty fondant centre. If I hadn't been half-cut on house red I'd have felt guilty that my chocoholic wife was down the road at work, and not sat at the bar sharing it with me.

While I'm still a little wistful for those halcyon days enjoying long boozy lunches up the road, the Coach is an more than able enthusiastic younger sibling with the added advantage of not having to plan your visit weeks in advance. Add in the warm and friendly service and (not too eye-watering) pricing and it might be time to pull up a stool and get comfy; there's a new local in town.

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Chick'n'sours - Reclux

There’s not many places I’m excited enough to write about twice – the ever wonderful Hawksmoor and Maltby Street Market/Bermondsey Beer Mile being notable exceptions – but when Carl Clarke announced that a second branch of his Kingsland Road fried chicken shop, Chick'n'Sours, was coming to Covent Garden and they would be bringing their famous whole Fry Sundays, I knew what I had to do.

As I pontificated at length after my first visit to the original branch, their Original Fry – served sprinkled with seaweed ‘crack’, as if it wasn’t moreish enough – is still amongst the best fried chicken I have eaten; and I know my crispy poultry. Not to mention the sticky Szechuan aubergine, so good we ordered it twice, and their Thai-inspired pickled watermelon salad that I’ve never been able to quite recreate at home.

I also like to think of myself as a bit of connoisseur when it comes to a sour cocktail  - the conceit making up the second part of their name – after drinking a few in my time. The Ewing, who shakes up the most awesome Sidecars, has even more experience in this niche field and judged the Rye'n'Black sour with red and pear as good – although missing that acerbic killer punch - while the original Chick'n'Club, with apple freeze dried berries, was even better.

Both made great appetite sharpeners, especially when imbibed along to fantastic soundtrack of New Order, Deacon Blue and the Communards.

While a starter seemed entirely superfluous, knowing how much food was already on its way, I couldn’t pass up one of the newest additions to the menu; Mexi-nese nachos – a hybrid dish of Chengdu chicken and bacon (an intensely spiced, meaty ragu), green chillies and kimchi cheese sauce, A glorious combination of salty, crunchy and cheesy, peppered with bursts of bright chilli heat.

While my experiences with home deep fat frying are limited after I got rid of our fryer -  to the unbridled delight of the Ewing, who was happy to sample the finished goods but was less enamoured with the grease and dust and trails of stale oil from another abandoned experiment – I know the difficulties of getting that crisp carapace while heating the insides right through. A lesson bitterly learnt after a batch of arancini with a black crust and a stubbornly solid cheesy centre.

So quite how the chefs manage to batter and fry a whole chicken so the coating is crisp and golden, the breast is still tender and those tricky little crevices where the legs and wings meet the body are fully cooked through is quite the mystery. 

But manage it they do, and the result is this (quickly demolished) burnished beauty, ordered K Pop style with the addition of extra squiggles of gochujang mayo and chilli vinegar zig-zagged in a Jackson Pollock-esque way across the top. Even in giant form, I maintain this is as fine as fried chicken gets; poultry perfection that rivals even the classic roast for the best Sunday dinner.

The hot and sour Korean sauces served with the chook were perfectly tempered by our choice soothing sides. The dripping fries, ordered with an awesome St Agur creamy blue cheese dip, were rated by the Ewing as McDonald's scale good (a ringing endorsement). 

While a dish of crisp green slaw, made with shredded sugar snaps in a tangy dressing and topped with black sesame seeds, was exceptionally good. In fact, with the nachos and chicken that had come before it, it’s a testament to its deliciousness that this was still possibly the best thing I ate all afternoon.

As Einstein (probably didn’t) say ‘insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results’. In this case I’m quite happy to confirm I’m completely lucid and the chicken (and everything else) is just as good at the Seven Dials branch – possibly even better as it’s far easier to get to for those on the west side. Although I’ve already persuaded the Ewing there’s no harm in returning to properly test the hypothesis.

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

Ending up in King's Cross

A fact that has been well documented on this blog is my enduring love of pizza. Thick, thin, frozen, coal-fired, I love it's easy-going informality and it's a passion that's endured since my Mum used to buy the cheap cheese and tomato pizzas the size of a saucer from Bejam. The perfect accompaniment for a marathon evening of Gladiators and Blind Date on a Saturday night.

Fast forward a few years and that still sounds like my idea of a perfect weekend. And, although they can't fulfil my nostalgic love for prime time game shows, Pizza Union - with branches in King's Cross and Shoreditch - fling some of the cheapest pies in town.

Part of the reason for the rock bottom prices is the slick self-service premise - think old school canteen but with trays of olives and roasted fava beans instead of the dried out Turkey Drummers and jam doughnuts of of my youth.

After selecting your drinks from the cabinet at the entrance you move along to the main counter to order and pay, picking up your trendy snacks and pots of extra Parmesan, chilli sauce and garlic mayo on the way. Find a stool at a communal bench, then it's a short wait until your buzzer goes off and you can collect your trays of freshly wood-fired pizza and side salads. Not the venue for a romantic dinner a deux perhaps, but perfect for a quick pit stop.

At 12.50 a bottle, the vino tinto - chosen from the very short wine list; one white, one red, one fizz - was about as good as you'd expect it to be. Which was to say not very, but at that price who's complaining. Icy cold Peroni and San Pellegrino are also available, as well as tepid thimbles of London tap.

Pizza union's pies are Roman style; aka the crisp-based ones you can pick up in a slice and fold into your mouth a la Sex and the City or Do the Right Thing, depending where you get your cultural references from. Whatever way you look at it, at a generous 12 inches and with prices starting at a bargain basement £3.95 for a margherita, you can't really go wrong.

Our first pick was the Romana; wild broccoli, mozzarella, speck and Gorgonzola (instead of goats cheese). Smoky and salty with the bitter tang of the greens, this was a fine way to spend six fifty of anyone's money. Consider splashing out another 50 pence for a pot of the aforementioned (Nando-esque) chilli sauce for your crusts.

We also ordered a fungi (this time with added goats cheese) which perfectly showcased why people who don't like mushrooms are Wrong. A mixed salad with olives, peppers and Parmesan - served in a utilitarian metal mixing bowl proved another tasty way to up our veg intake.

As good as the pizza was, there was something I was even more excited about; the calzone ring stuffed with Nutella and mascarpone cheese. While I've seen these on the menu before (Pizza Pilgrims even do a customisable one at their new Shoreditch branch) I've never been quite up to the challenge after eating a hefty Neapolitan pie. Thankfully, their Northern brethren are crisper and lighter meaning plenty of room for pud.

As ever celebrating excess when it comes to desserts, the Ewing also decided to order two tubs of Oddono's ice cream - in pistachio and salted caramel flavours. A good call as it turns out as both were very fine indeed; even more so when eased out their tubs and into the centre of the molten calzone ring.

Pizza ice cream, cheap wine and hanging around Kings Cross late on a Saturday - it really was like the last twenty years hadn't happened. And to capitalise on that 90's vibe, and prove we've still got it, the evening finished with the Dandy Warhols at the Roundhouse. Just a casual, casual easy thing. Is it? It is for me.