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.

Wednesday, 13 December 2017

Bites - Butcher's Tap

Sometimes I have good ideas, sometimes I have great ones, and sometimes they might be considered somewhat questionable - such as deciding I fancied opening a tin of corned beef after a night drinking whisky (I've still got the scars), or deciding a solitary bottle of factor 8 was sufficient for a week in the Algarve, in July (I'm still peeling); or persuading my other half - with just the merest hint of bribery -  a visit to Tom Kerridge's newly opened pub-cum-butchers for lunch in the run up to Christmas was a good idea.

The Spittal Street site, the third in Kerridge's Thames-side empire, was previously the home O'Donaghues - a quintessential, low-beamed Irish sports bar for lovers of Guinness and rugby, preferably both at the same time, while wearing a plush hat with a shamrock on it.

The new vibe is much more Marlow, darling, with the press release describing it as; "a welcoming hub for the local community where people can meet for a drink, a bite to eat, and buy well-sourced quality meat to take home.” That being said, there's still three TVs showing sports here, although - like at the Coach down the road - they seem a fairly pointless addition, with only the Ewing and the bar staff able to see Chelsea vs Newcastle on the screen behind me, although she seemed to be enjoying it rather more than my company.

But before we could start ignoring each other over the lunchtime kick-off, we had to make our way past the scum of eager Marlovains seemingly overcome, rather like Uncle Monty as a youth, that a butcher's had finally returned to town. Resplendent in their blue striped aprons and straw hats, it's a professional looking set-up with the offerings running from homemade chicken kievs to carefully chined racks of lamb and magnificent aged wing ribs.

I'm taking a point off for not having any faggots, my all-time favourite old school butchers treat - preferably served with chips, mushy peas, and lashings of gravy - but they did have a beatific pig's head in their glass-fronted fridge in the corner, who stared beadily from the corner as I enjoyed his bretheren.

While the beverage of choice appeared to be cold white - being ordered and dispatched at an impressive rate by a large proportion of the clientele - with an afternoon of Getting Things Done ahead, I was happy to stick with a pint. Like his other ventures, Kerridge has partnered with Greene King, who brew his Hand & Flowers ale. Fortunately, they also had Rebellion's Roasted Nuts, one of my favourite seasonal beers and brewed less than a mile down the road.

The sausage roll was, more accurately, cochleate. A snail-shaped slice, edged with flaky pastry, rather than the more familiar porky parcel. Despite its unorthodox shaping, it was pretty decent, although for £3.50 for a moderate chunk, you would hope so. Piccalilli, with its ominously lurid appearance, improves the flavour most things it cosies up with, and here was no exception.

We also ordered a couple of dogs - as they were just preceded by the word 'hot' on the chalkboard stand and there were no menus to be seen, I relied on Google to reliably inform me the over-sized smoked sausage was topped pulled pork, pickled chillies, crispy onions and mustard mayonnaise. Sometimes I marvel at the modern world - why talk to anyone when you can find out from an illuminated four inch square in front of your face. Inelegant to eat but indisputably good, even at £7.50 a pop.

However grim things seem, pork products are a well-known cure-all and our mini haul from the small deli counter was no different. Pork crunch had been 'hot flashed', which sounded like something that might befall the women we had seen queuing with their wicker baskets for their chops and sausages but, more prosaically, seemed to mean the puffier type of scratching, rather than the Mr Porky tooth-smashers.

The pie was also highly commendable, although the pastry seemed a little lighter and chewier than the common-garden hot water crust, with layers of lamination when I cut into it. The filling, however, was the real deal. lots of peppery chunks of juicy pork, with a good jelly ratio (i.e. pretty much none), and perfect eaten on the sofa with a good dollop of mustard and another bottle of Roasted Nuts. So, not such a bad idea of mine after all....

Thursday, 30 November 2017

The New Kid - Smoking Goat, Shoreditch

There is very little as pleasurable in life as a long and boozy lunch with an old friend on a wintery Saturday afternoon. The kind of lunch that starts in the pale winter light and meanders its way through a menu of cocktails and conversation until its dark as pitch outside and you realise just how pissed you are as you try to avoid setting fire to your sleeve on the newly lit candle that’s appeared on the table as you struggle to put your coat on.

It all started off rather sedately, at Smoking Goat in Shoreditch – the new kid from the Soho stable, which also includes the much lauded Kiln – with a couple of frosty beers (I drank the excellent One Mile End Juicy 4pm) and a couple of grilled Tamworth skewers; the smoky meat interspersed with nuggets of fat and lacquered in a sweet and sticky glaze. 

The menu is a concise mix, familiar to anyone who has been to the original, that focuses on Thai drinking snacks with a few larger sharing dishes and sides. It’s also very keenly priced, meaning we could try far more of it, which is handy because I wanted to try it all. Normally that’s just because of sheer greed, but here everything sounds fantastic, from the poached Menai oyster with chilli to the drunken brisket noodles, neither of which we had the capacity to shoehorn in.

One thing I was very keen not to miss out on – partly as it’s one of my favourite Thai dishes, and partly because it comes with a chilli heat warning and I’m a masochist when it comes to preserving my taste buds - was the duck laarb. Finely chopped pieces of duck offal cooked with ground rice and indecent amounts of chilli, dried red and fresh green, seasoned with lime juice and fresh herbs. The ultimate drinking snack. Just the ultimate snack full stop.

Like most good spicy things, the burn grows from a pleasant tickle into a flicker that moves across your tongue and makes the sweat prick your brow. While poky, the heat is far from incendiary, meaning you can pick out the delicateness of each individual flavour. Unless your stealth and you eat the whole red chilli. Then the whole green one too.

From the larger plates section the d’tom yum came in a large pot - perfect for sharing -swimming with velvet crab and plump wild mussels and the addition of assorted aromatics in the form of lime, chillies, lemongrass  and ginger. Tom yum is one of my favourite soups and here the broth was perfect – clean and well-balanced between sweet, salt, and sour with a dash of heat creeping in.

The goat itself, served slow braised in a massoman curry sauce, was good, if a little lacking in sparkle after all the fireworks. By no means a bad dish - the huge hunk of tender shoulder slipped from its bone, possessing just the right ratio of meat to fat – the mild flavours were, unsparingly, somewhat muted after the slap round the chops from what had come before. I also didn’t get any spuds, which would have been entirely superfluous at that point, but I was kind of looking forward to a couple of yielding tubers to crush into the peanutty sauce.

To make up for any lost carbs – several beers were also helping with that - we also ordered the lardo fried rice (although the fluffy plates of jasmine rice being served at the table next to us smelt incredibly good), studded with chunks of crispy fatty pork, spring onion and crispy omelette and served with a dish of piquant chilli vinegar and half a lime to cut a swathe through the richness.

Desserts are a work in progress - maybe not a bad thing judging by some of the Thai sweets I’ve tried, although I do love coconut and mango sticky rice - but they do offer the perfect way for you to finish a meal in the shape of the Tray of Joy. The Tray of Joy, as the moniker suggests, being a ramshackle assortment of strange liquors – the kind that taste great in a Greek tavern after spending all day in the sun or in an Hungarian bar after several beers  – served in what appears very much like glasses straight from my Nan’s cabinet.

One important piece of research, which I’ve concluded so you don’t have to, is that the number of trays of joy consumed and feelings of joy appear inversely proportional. Although that could be something to do with the subsequent rounds of cocktails we ordered and Spurs losing 2-0 to their North London rivals in the lunchtime kick-off. Still, a well-kept pint of Hotspur at the nearby King’s Stores did a little to ameliorate the gloom.

Sunday, 26 November 2017

Super Saturday

Everyone who supports a team has their ‘golden’ era. For me, I would like to say it was the mighty Tottenham of the late 80s / early 90s, with players like Gary Mabbutt and Gary Lineker. Sadly, for me, I was a whisker too late and I ended up with Jason Dozzell and Jason Cundy. That said I was lucky enough that my first real Spurs memory was the 1991 FA cup semi-final, a 3-1 victory against our North London rivals which spawned the famous chant “we’re going to Wembley cos we beat the Arsenal”, something that I, endearingly naively, thought was a common garden occurrence. 

Of course, it wasn't; that is until last season, when White Hart Lane was finally put to the wrecking ball and Spurs were temporarily afforded the chance to call the hallowed Wembley turf  ‘home’ for the 2017/18 Premier League season.

Long story short, it’s how the Ewing and I came to be heading to Wembley on a Saturday afternoon to see what would, hopefully, be their first home league win of the season (and hoping that it wouldn’t be a repeat of our last visit, where we conceived to get knocked out of the Europa league and Alli got sent off while I was in the loo).

As with the time before (with a visit to, what now appears sadly defunct, Karhe Queen), we decided our pre-match prep would be in the form of a curry at the Sri Lankan/South Indian stalwart Palm Beach. Perhaps not the greatest choice before squeezing in close proximity with thousands of other people, but with the range of good, cheap Indian food available on the High Road, even I could happily forego a dirty pre-match burger from the van.

The menu is big - a meandering tome that spans across the two countries, taking in soups, dosa, noodles, tandoori, South Indian specialities, devilled dishes and biryani. Ever-prepared, I had already studied it extensively online, but if you're not as into pre-planning I'd recommend heading straight for the Palm Beach specials, where you can find Indo-chinese food and Sri Lankan dishes such as lamb intestines, anchovies, rabbit curry and the, Dutch-influenced, lamprais.

Football + Curry = lager and large bottles of icy cold Lion did a fine job of quenching thirsts and quelling fires. They also have the mighty Lion stout, an export style stout that young men  in plaid shirts would be raving over if it was being served in plastic half pint glasses in a corregated shed in Shacklewell.

If anything could get me to become veggie it’s Indian food - finding myself powerless when confronted by a creamy tarka daal or an earthy saag bhaji. I particularly enjoy their treatment of the aubergine, a tricky veg to nail properly. Here it's served ‘Jaffna-style’, cooked to tender collapse, languishing in a rich pool of smoky, spiced oil.

Of course, I couldn’t really commit to just veg as it would mean missing out on delights like the vast portion of tender squid that had been dry-fried in a dark spice paste rich with shrimp and tamarind and was impossibly delicious; all crispy and soft and sweet and fiery. A classic Sri Lankan dish that’s unprepossessing looks belie it’s delicious charms.

Another dish that would have had a pop-up in a Brixton boxpark by now, had it been a more ‘Grammable proposition, is the kothu roti. A dish so named because of the sound the knives make as they chop the ingredients on a hot plate, it’s a dish borne of ingenuity with roadside vendors using leftover bread from breakfast (or string hoppers or puttu), chopped up and fried with a mixture of meat vegetables and eggs. 

While not being classically good looking, it’s a dish with depth and charm; certainly worthy of a second date. Here the venison version was outstanding and utterly moreish - compelling me to keep eating to the point I pretty much had to roll myself out and back down the High Road.

Additionally, deliciously, yet entirely unnecessary was a fragrant Malabar prawn curry from the Keralan coast. A dish full of plump crustaceans in a rich and fragrant coconut gravy, spiced with curry leaves and red chilli, that was soaked up perfectly by with a bowl of old school fluffy pilau rice, flecked through with grains of luminous orange.

I've yet to make acquaintance with an Indian/Sri Lankan pudding I've really enjoyed, despite my greed-driven perseverance. Not wanting to admit defeat, and as the Ewing was ordering pistachio kulfi (no pic, very nice) and a cup of spiced masala chai, I decided to try the watalappan, or baked coconut custard.

Served on a banana leaf, this was a wobbly slice of cashew-topped joy. that tasted like the old fashioned baked bread pudding my next door neighbour made when i was growing up, only the familiar vanilla and brown sugar had been replaced by pandan and jaggery. An exceptionally good pud, by any standards.

Grinding out a 1-0 victory against the Cherries was hardly the stuff of my schoolgirl Wembley fantasies, but as someone who still remembers the joyful feeling of reaching the end of the season and finishing higher than mid-table and with a positive goal difference, I’ll happily take it.