Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Concrete and Chinatown

Despite appearances to the contrary, the #brutaltour is continuing apace (well, maybe not quite that quickly) as I attempt my quest to concrete chase across the capital. To deal with the ever increasing backlog of buildings, our latest instalment - after my long-suffering wife had looked at my Brutalist London map and then at my stilted progress - managed to cleverly combine a tour around at the centre of town with a refreshment stop after every stop we crossed off the list.

Concrete and Chinese food, the perfect combination - although I'll spare you most of the architecture in this post as I'm currently writing a mid-way #brutaltour round up featuring all the grey concrete anyone could possibly desire.

Showing a fine disregard to all the sensible advice my parents gave me when growing up (sometimes one of the only good things about being an adult), our first lunch stop was for ice cream sundaes. And not any ice cream sundaes, these being from Tsujiri, a Kyoto-based chain of matcha tea houses who have recently opened a store on Soho’s Rupert Street.

When the Ewing and I went to Kyoto we tried matcha ice cream made of tofu (pretty much the only positive use for soy beans I have encountered), which not only melted far slower but didn’t fall out the cone, even when held upside down (a fact I tested quite thoroughly and with child-like glee). And while Tsujiri wasn’t as fun, it was just as tasty.

An Instagrammer's dream, with their perfectly coiffured green swirls and colourful additions, both the matcha sundaes we tried were good. My original paired candied chestnuts with sweetened red beans, mochi balls and the crackle of brown rice puffs (Rice Krispies by any other name). The Ewing’s choice bought cake to the party and was finished with a slab of matcha chiffon sponge, chewy rice balls and a layer of cornflakes. 

The star of the show, the green tea ice cream, was excellent; milky and smooth with a fresh, grassy bitterness that counteracted the tooth-achingly sugary topping and was served in substantially deceptive portions. Don't expect change from a fiver, but when a Mr Whippy in a stale cone can now easily run you to half that, they start to look fair value.  

After a successful stop at the new pretender we revisited Jen Cafe, an old stalwart on Newport Place, for our next snackette. Occupying a corner site, the brightly painted green woodwork and triangular shaped plot makes it hard to miss - or just look for the crowds pressed up at the window, watching the women making the Beijing dumplings they are known for.

There is a small selection of roast meats and rice and soups etc. on the menu (mostly re-heated in the microwave) but it’s best to stick with the short list of dough-based classics – They also do a mean line in fresh juices and Honk Kong comfort classics like spam sandwiches, toast with lashings of condensed milk and hot Coke with lemon; good for a cold, apparently.

Our portion of fried pot stickers were decent, but I think I might prefer the simply boiled version, topped with a slick of chilli oil and some chinese black vinegar, which are also a pound cheaper. They also use the same flour and water dough to make excellent hand cut noodles, served with a spicy pork sauce and chopped cucumber (a Chinese version of bolognaise). To drink, both the fresh Watermelon and classic milk versions of their bubble tea were both as good as any I’ve had.

Don’t expect anything too refined; the dumpling wrappers are solid and stodgy (just how I like it), the ‘glasses’ are made of plastic and it can be cramped and hectic inside - wear sensible shoes if you plan on using the loo.... But for a cheap and filling feed, and surprisingly charming service (well, on our last visit, at least) it remains an integral part of Chinatown.

It was at this this point we realised that, despite careful pre-planning, the #brutaltour had been usurped by a trail of gluttony followed by an hour looking in all the chinese supermarkets on Gerard Street. Nothing new there then. So after an intermission to go and chase some concrete (blog roundup to follow) we returned to Chinatown for a second round of eating and drinking.

Bigbe Chicken was the stop I was most looking forward to - a hole in the wall that has sprung up promising 'Taiwan's best crispy and juicy chicken' that quickly become social media's latest darling; and most of the rest of London's judging by the queues on our visit.

Here, as the name suggests, it’s about 'London's number one' deep fried chicken breast. Popcorn chicken, drumsticks and squid make up the rest of the regular menu, but you can also check out the specials board to the right of the counter for treats like ‘bone’ or crispy wings. 

While I'm normally a leg girl, the promise of ‘up to 30cm’ of breast was too hard to resist, which I chose topped with chilli powder, - decent heat but not incendiary -  from their rag-tag assortment of flavour shakers on the counter. Cheese and tangy plum, anyone?

Make no mistake, this thing is a behemoth, and particularly tricky to eat when fresh from its double dipping in the fryer. Obviously, we gave it our best shot and - having sampled lots of London's fried chicken offerings through the years - this was certainly up there with the juiciest. It's unlicensed, but I recommend accompanying the hot poultry with a cold can of, non-alcoholic, Taiwanaese Apple Sidra

Happy Lemon was the final refreshment stop; a good shout as the Ewing still calls me the Lemonhead - after my (allegedly) citrus fruit-shaped face. Sticking to type, I chose the frozen lemon and grapefruit slushy which, with its plentiful chunks of fresh fruit, struck the good bittersweet balance between the two.

While the matcha latte with rock salt and cheese sounded more like something Chef would whip up on South Park than a delicious drink, my wife chose this as her beverage of choice from the bewildering array of drinks on offer. Ultimately it wasn’t quite as fearsome as it sounded; the the green tea latte was a pale imitation of the matcha at Tsujiri, but the salty/sweet cream cheese-like topping was strangely addictive.

It’s not often I hail (boom) an incoming thunderstorm, but the distant rumbles of thunder and the close atmosphere as we walked through the streets of Chinatown and back to Marylebone bought back memories of walking around the muggy night markets of Mong Kok, giddy with jet-lag and the novelty of newly discovered cups of iced boba tea, which provided the perfect refreshment in the muggy atmosphere.

But while Hong Kong may have the dazzling skyline of Victoria Harbour, our trip took in one final treat; the Welbeck Street carpark. Home of not just, in my humble opinion, the best place to park your car in the Big Smoke, but also one of its finest burgers. But, with the carpark/restaurant unlisted and a large hotel chain having recently acquired the site for redevelopment, that’s a story that’s waiting to be written.

Monday, 13 June 2016

The Larder House and the Library - Southbourne, Dorset

As much as I'm always excited to try new independent restaurants and bars, I have eaten and drunk enough to understand the appeal of chains. In a world of uncertainty it's sometimes nice to know how many pieces of pepperoni are going to be on your pizza.

Mostly though, it's good to embrace a bit of spontaneity; at least when it comes to dinner. Yes, I have eaten some ill-advised flavour combinations and experienced some comical ineptitude while eating out (chains, of course, are not immune to this, just in a more predictable way), but the passion, humour and innovation when you find somewhere new far outweighs the chance of sampling a duff.

Which is why I was eagerly anticipating our visit to the Larder House, who describe themselves, rather grandly, on their website as being 'infused with traditions of bygone eras and through the continuous researching into the greatest foods from around Europe' despite it's prosaic setting of Southbourne High Street, wedged between the hairdressers and a bank.

As it was also the Ewing's birthday, we started with a few oysters - after seeing them sitting on ice in a wine bucket - as who doesn't love slurping on a fresh bivalve before dinner. Well, me actually, having never really enjoyed any sort of huitre, especially a raw one. These however, while not quite a briny revelation, were rather good. I didn't even need to employ the bijou jug of shallot and red wine vinegar.

One thing I do dig is cured pig and I found it impossible to resist the hand carved ham from Teruel, especially as I had to walk past the sweetly glistening leg in its wooden carving stand on the way to our table. Served with stone baked bread and olive oil, the sweet and nutty meat, edged with ribbons of buttery fat, was porcine perfection and served in a pleasingly generous portion.

The Ewing also had pork - this time gelatinous hunks of long braised pig's cheek served with a Japanese/Iberian fusion of panko-crusted morcilla croquettes and a token scattering of salad.

Behind Stornoway black pudding - my Mum's Scottish neighbour picks up a chub from Charles McLeod for us at Christmas - morcilla might be my favourite type, the iron-rich blood offset by the addition of raisins and rice. Here the sweetness cut through the heft of the pig making for a surprisingly light and springy dish.

A behemoth of a duck breast, from the daily specials board, was nicely judged - arriving the same blushing pink hue as my wife's nose after her afternoon spent  in the sun. Almost better was the pillowy peaks of creamy mash - reminding me of my Dad's, who's a supreme spud masher - and the shiny gravy studded with lardons of pancetta and fresh peas.

Also on as a special was the trio of fish (which no one can now recall, but may have included mackerel and hake) served with a middle eastern inspired melange of samphire, cous cous, harrissa and yoghurt. A fresh and summery combination that made another good looking plate, despite my picture trying its hardest to suggest the contrary. 

Some careful pre-visit menu studying - always a risky prospect - meant I was hotly anticipating the honey and malt cheesecake with caramelized clementine for pudding. Thankfully it took pride of place on the short list of sweets and, apart from the listless slice of citrus fruit that displayed none of the promised char, this was a creamy, crunchy, claggy, joy; my perfect kind of pudding.

The Ewing, in an uncharacteristic move that eschewed all chocolate-related options, went with the blood orange sorbet and berries. Not a dieter's choice - the homemade brandy basket resembled Walter Raleigh's ruff, and was just as big while the tuile wafer wouldn't have looked out of place on Jodrell Bank, but a sensible one to help with helping to cool down and replenish lost fluids (not sure all the g&ts with extra ice really count).

As an ex-librarian of a decade’s good standing after-dinner drinks at the Library, the Larderhouse’s secret speakeasy accessed through a unmarked side door, were a must. Upstairs, in contrast to the light and airy dining room, is styled like an eccentric gentleman’s club - minus the paunchy gents with piggy eyes and port-reddened noses - with décor featuring an array of creepy taxidermy and curios.  

Instead of books, the shelves hold an oeuvre of different spirits from around the world and the international theme continues with a drinks menu that is loosely based on a jaunt across the globe.  It's a concise list of short, punchy drinks that don’t hold back on the booze (or the price, with most ranging from £11-£13), and if nothing works up your thirst they will shake something up off piste, based on your usual drinking preferences - just don’t expect fishbowls or Jaeger bombs.

Cocktail-wise expect the usual kind of schtick, especially if you’ve drunk anywhere in East London in the last decade – drinks served with complimentary popcorn and a plastic statue of liberty, drinks served with lottery tickets (we were quids in - well, singular) and drinks served with dried mushrooms and a stuffed animal. 

The latter accompanied my, succinctly named, Cognac - foie gras washed brandy infused with mushrooms, pretty much just tasted of burning (no bad thing, in my book), although I ramped up the fungi flavour by nibbling on some of the said porcini garnish. The Savoy was very bitter, perfect for  those who like a negroni (unfortunately not all of out party, it seems), although I think my favourite was an off menu libation, based on a whisky sour, well, from what I can remember of it…

If you’ve got a sweet tooth then finish with the Venezuela which in contrast to most of the other drinks we tried, including the delicious, but very tart, non-alcoholic numbers for the baby-carrier – tasted like condensed milk and fruit juice over crushed ice. It’s also served in a very cute tiki-style glass with a lima (probably not really a lima) on the handle. It’s also the only bar I’ve been to where they serve dishes of chocolate raisins to nibble with your drinks, an idea I thoroughly applaud.

Words like quirky, hidden gem and one-off seem to be tacked on to pretty much anything than isn’t an homogeneous high street chain, but the Larder House and Library really do fit the spec. Even more impressive when they occupy the same sort of anonymous high street plot that chains now mostly fill. Add in cocktails, cigars, chocolate raisins and a birthday girl that couldn’t have been happier and it’s clear the Larder House is no weak link.

Wednesday, 25 May 2016

The art of compromise - bank holiday beer special

Sometimes, I think the key to happiness is mastering the art of compromise (although, at others, I'm pretty sure it's all about eating cold pizza in my dressing gown). For instance, the Ewing loves reclaimed furniture - or anything made out of an old pallet - I love pizza and both of us have a healthy interest in beer. Which made the Crate Brewery, which prominently features all three of the above, a particularly appealing choice for the Bank Holiday, while also giving us an extra day to get over the hangover.

It also happens to be in Hackney Wick and the overground rail closures, coupled with the bank holiday bus replacement service, meant we pretty much needed the extra twenty four hours to get back home again.

Situated in the White Building on the River Lea Navigation  - a canalised river running from rural Hertfordshire to the River Thames at Bow Creek - the bar is the perfect spot for a few beers in the sunshine. The waterfront location also means visits from The Record Deck, a working barge that also sells vinyl, that the Ewing was very pleased to see moored up and already spinning tunes as we arrived.

The bar at Crate is a masterclass in recycling. Old railway sleepers, cleverly cobbled together from local artists' cast-offs, make up the bar; ladders and ratchet straps make indoor seats, rusty bed springs have been fashioned into eccentric light fittings and the canal-side benches and tables are made from scaffold planks - even the spare off-cuts of wood have been used to make planters for a herb garden. Across the yard they have a brew-shed, where they make the beers. In other words, the Ewing's paradise.

To start I tried the Crate Pale ale, both in bottle and on keg; the latter was cleaner and crisper, but also less aromatic and not as interesting. A very nice beer, either way, and at 4.5 percent, perfect for a session in the sun. The Ewing also went for something steady to start with in the Sour, a fantastically vibrant beer infused with a touch of passionfruit and hibiscus while retaining the power to make you grimace slightly on sipping that a good sour should.

They specialise in wood-fired pizza - more specifically crisp, Roman style pizza, rather than softer Neapolitan style. While it’s significantly easier to eat, lacking the somewhat soupy centre of a southern Italian pie, a roman base does bring to mind a giant Carr’s water cracker. As a biscuit to eat with a lump of cheese, that’s probably a good thing - they were always my dad’s favourite when I was growing up -  but as a vehicle for melted cheese, I prefer something a little less friable.

That said, my favourite ever pizza was eaten in Rome - a Bianca pie, topped with courgette flowers, anchovy and mozzarella - cooked by a tiny guy who resembled John Paul II, and thereafter nicknamed ‘Pizza Pope’for the rest of our trip.

The toppings here are pretty outré. You can stick to cheese or meat if you like, although the prosciutto and salami were off on our visit, but they also offer walnut and sweet potato, banana and dahl (even the Ewing wasn't sure), and, our choice, Middle Eastern lamb with pine nuts, spinach and mint.

The crisp base and the ovine topping made it a close cousin to the lamachun - although canalside it will set you back twelve quid, as opposed to the three quid of Green Lanes. Commendably, certainly at that price, they hadn’t skimped on the toppings and a more robust crust meant that they held up well. It also went very well with two halves of their keg stout and the cask porter.

Billed as the UK's first dedicated tank bar, that's the fermenting vessel rather than a military vehicle, our next stop, Howling Hops, was just around the corner. Of course their too hip for signage, so look for the crowds drinking from dimpled schooners outside if the weather's nice, or the scribbled note on the side door if it isn't.

Crate Brewery Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Originally, they started brewing in the basement of the Cock Tavern, on nearby Mare Street, and selling their beers in the bar above. But soon thirsty East Londoners meant demand had outstripped their capacity and a bigger site was sought. This one mixes bar and brewery, allowing you to drink the freshest beer straight from the source, while giving them the capacity to bottle some of their beers for distribution, too.

I started with their Running Beer brown ale, before moving on to the Pale XX Superior No.1 and the IPA 2 West Coast Special. All good, the brown ale and IPA particularly. The Ewing stuck with the blonde beers; an Amber Dexter amber ale and the  East End Hefeweizen, brewed in collaboration with Pressure Drop. The latter reconfirming my dislike of wheat beers while being my wife's favourite of the trip.

The food is provided by Billy Smokes, with a range of smoked, fried and fermented goods, including the Big Fuck Off Tray of Meat (an array of protein including glazed ham hock, sausages, beef and lamb belly) available. Our visit saw a more restrained selection, with a small selection of wraps and buns and a handful of sides on offer.

My sausage bun, a chunky disc of homemade smoked sausage made with the Running beer, was served on a shiny brioche bun and came topped with a smattering of citrus slaw and house bbq sauce. All the classic components done well, this made a handsome (second) lunch.

The beer can chicken roll was more divisive. The Ewing loved it (it was sublime, believe me - TE), and she is a connoisseur in chicken sandwiches, but I found it hard to see it as much more than a sarnie. Yes, it was a commendably good sarnie piled with juicy chicken, which at seven quid it should have been, but was lacking much in the way of promised BBQ flavour and made me think wistfully about crispy smoked thighs and smoky, charred wings.

One thing we did agree on was the pickles, a snappy little selection of cucumbers, carrot, peppers and green beans (a very underestimated pickling vegetable) that made me want to go home and crack open the Sarsons and make some of my own. (There’s a solid preserving pedigree in my lineage, with our family being the lucky recipients of several jars of legendary Nanny Pickle each year until my Nan recently hung up her apron).

Predictably, just as were leaving Howling Hops, the Bank Holiday heavens opened - which threatened to make the ride on the number 30, all the way from Hackney Wick to Marble Arch, feel like a very long one; especially after the last round of beers. 

But nabbing a spot 'driving the bus' and gaining Prince for company - we picked up his eponymous 1979 vinyl album from the record barge moored by Crate (a compromise that meant the Ewing letting me wail along to 'I Wanna Be Your Lover' at ear-splitting levels if she could get a new record player) meant the promise of some slow jams could make even the slow crawl home enjoyable.

Howling Hops Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Wednesday, 18 May 2016

They see me rollin' - Song Que, Hackney

One of my most endearing memories of the Ewing is from when we visited Song Que for the first time - eight years ago, on the first of her birthdays that we spent together - and she ordered the prawn rice paper rolls. I still remember her sheer unbridled joy at the arrival of the crustacean, vermicelli noodle and herb-stuffed cylinders; in fact, I’m still not sure I’ve ever known anyone quite so happy with a new discovery since my cousin tasted chocolate cake for the first time and broke down in a sugar-crazed frenzy that, decades later, no one has quite let him forget.

Happily, the Ewing is still just as awed by the simple things in life (hence why she married me) and was equally excited to return for another helping of summer rolls - and a few cold Saigon beers - for the auspicious occasion of her most recent birthday.

Not much has changed since our last visit, save a few grey hairs and a couple of crow's feet (speak for yourself - TE), and the distinctive green frontage remains a stalwart on the Kingsland Road, London's mecca for lovers of Vietnamese. It's also next door to the wonderful Geffrye Museum, a homage to the London home through the ages housed in 18th-century almshouses with a wonderful walled herb garden and plenty of room for a picnic on the front lawn if spicy food isn't your thing.

After a happy day featuring a salt beef bagel breakfast from the near by Brick Lane Beigal bake, followed by an afternoon admiring the blooms on the Columbia Road and appetite-sharpening at the Geffrye, our plate of prawn summer rolls were ordered with keen anticipation.

If I was being fussy the swift delivery, coupled with the fridge cold temperature and slightly gummy rice wrappers, suggested they had been pre-made a while earlier, All was forgiven, as they were very good - maybe not quite a Proustian madeline moment, but delicious nevertheless, especially when dipped in the moreish sweet peanut sauce alongside.

The main draw at Song Que is the beef noodle soup, or pho (or fur, if you want to be linguistically correct or smugly irritating). Firstly, I’m not really a fan of noodles in soup (especially rice noodles) as a general rule – too wholesome, too difficult to eat - but this is the dish they are famous for, and it’s the dish I ate last time I was here, so I felt duty bound to order it to recreate the experience properly.

Here it comes with beef steak, beef flank, beef tendon and beef tripe; or any combination of the above. The first time I tried it I shied away from the tripe, reckoning the glassy strips of cartilaginous tendon would be enough to deal with. This time I was more bullish (see what I did there) and went for the classic combo, reasoning - rather unreasonably considering my track record with ordering strange body parts - that I would barely notice the tripe with all the other good things bobbing about in my bowl.

Of course, what was the first thing I dredged up when the steaming broth arrived, a huge coil of the stuff, that wound round my chopstick in a manner of a giant octopus clinging the hull of a ship. Well, maybe not that dramatic, but it still looked pretty menacing. So I did what I always do when faced with unmentionable things; doused it in chilli oil (err, asked if I wanted to help you eat it more like - TE)

It would have helped to know at this point that Vietnamese chilli oil, or at least the version at Song Que, is not the sugary, MSG laden stuff I normally eat surreptitiously straight from the jar. This was pure, adulterated heat - meaning I couldn’t really taste the tripe, or feel my tongue for that matter. After the spice had died down, it all proved far less fearsome than I had feared especially after I flung in the dish of fresh herbs and beansprouts that accompanies each bowl and added a healthy spritz of lime. I’m still not keen on rice noodles, though.

The Ewing also chose noodles in soup, but this time egg noodles with a spicy broth with king prawns. Already an unusual choice for someone who isn’t keen on too much chilli, she then seemed to lose leave of her senses entirely and eat a piece of the accompanying chopped birds eye chillies. I was denied photo evidence, but much sweating and swearing while squinting at me through mascara-smudged eyes ensued. Yes, there is a pattern to our stupidity. 

Fortuitously, south east Asian deserts seem to be designed as a salve for burnt mouths and the Vietnamese three colour desert, che ba mau, is no exception. Layers of sweetened beans (here resembling Heinz finest) pandan jelly and coconut milk, topped with crushed ice and served to be mixed into a unholy mess tableside.

As far as these kind of things go, I found it strangely enjoyable. The sugary beans working with the floral notes of the jelly and the cool, bland coconut to make a sweet and soothing ending to the meal. And just look at that little face; still never as happy as when she's found something new to scoff.

Song Que Café Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato