Monday, 9 April 2018

Happiness at the Magdalen Arms

A few (ahem) years ago my school careers adviser asked me what I wanted to do when I grew up. To which I replied 'restaurant critic in the Sunday Times'. Which, seeing as I haven't really grown up yet, would still stand as my answer.

I am therefore taking it as a fateful sign that a career change could be impending as AA Gill's visit to the Magdelen Arms - chronicled in the wonderful Table Talk - happened to fall on the day after the boat race, just like ours did nearly six years later.

Possibly one reason I don't already write for the ST relates to what my adviser termed my 'energy efficiency', an epithet I was secretly rather proud of; everyone knows that procrastination and productivity are secretly bedfellows.  As a case in point, and to save my self some time thinking of my own words, here are a few from the master's visit, that I found when aimlessly Googling, to set the scene.

Oxford, the day after the Boat Race, was humming with young people in all their messy, bright, sloppy, gabby, gaudy fecundity, like streets of blown tulips.
Nobody mentioned the Boat Race, nor that little man who leapt into the river to protest at, what? Elitism? Which was funny, as rowers are, in many ways, the bottom of the food chain, damp and muscly, mocked for their bookshelf shoulders and bullock’s thighs.

This is a big pub, with a restaurant set behind screens at one end of a barn-like room. It’s more pubby than gastro. The Blonde and I took Jemima Khan, the film producer John Batsek and Annabel Rivkin. A lot of big tables of cluster dates. This kitchen was recommended to me by one of the best cooks I know. It is the gustatory outreach of the Anchor & Hope in Lambeth, where I recently had some exceptional ducks’ hearts on toast after The Duchess of Malfi. It has done a great deal of epicurean proselytising and is the best template I know for pub food.

At the risk of sending my last remaining readers off to The Times bookshop, to read some proper food criticism (and also to avoid being sued for copyright) I'll give the ctrl alt v keys a long enough rest to say that my company on the day was the, no less exciting, Ewing. And while there were no blown tulips, there was a jaunty vase of daffs to provide a backdrop to my fino sherry aperitif.

The menu is a roll call of big, butch things you want to eat that changes on a a daily basis, sometimes twice daily, so it doesn't matter too much when you drip trails of olive oil, from heels of homemade bread you've dragged through a golden puddle of the stuff, all over it as you're trying to make up your mind.

Actually, that's a bit of a fib, as they also update the menu online, meaning I had already been perusing it on the train that morning, desperately crossing all fingers and toes that the Hereford steak and ale suet crust pie with buttered greens was on the menu. I wasn't disappointed, although the Ewing may have been a little, as she had seen the braised lamb neck for two with dauphinoise spuds and pickled red cabbage.

As you can see, she was excited after it arrived, and frankly, with such a bronzed and burnish sight, not glimpsed since we walked along the beach in Fano one summer in the height of August, who wouldn't be?

It was equally inviting down below, huge chunks of melting beef in a deep, glossy gravy with the odd tangle of sweet onion and, unusually, a chunk of red pepper or two that wasn't amiss in the richly beery morass. The dish of perfectly crisp buttered greens served alongside was a joyous tribute to the wonder of cruciferous veg. A truly first rate Sunday lunch.

As there's never too much of a good thing, the Ewing went for a pastry-based finale as well. A generous wodge of crisp-bottomed pear and almond tart with a pillowy frangipane centre, accompanied by a ball of good vanilla ice cream.

If I was really getting into the spirit, I'd probably have described my buttermilk pudding with poached rhubarb as wobbling like a stroke's pectoral as they pass under Barnes Bridge, but, thankfully, I'm not.

The Blonde had also ordered it, and said it had too much gelatine; perhaps they had heeded the write-up, as mine was near on perfect and, as a unwanted consequence, under near constant attack from the Ewing across the table.

Obviously Adrian gets the last word; the Magdalen has a lot to smile about. A smile, as opposed to its burlesque sister, the laugh, doesn’t necessarily imply humour, or comedy, rather a general happiness, wellbeing, a shared conviviality, and it doesn’t have to be out loud.

Wednesday, 28 March 2018

Shepherdess Cafe

As Donne famously said, 'no man is an island', something that can be extended to most things in this tangled web of a word we're passing through, but when you look at the Shepherdess Cafe, just of the Old Street Roundabout, it's hard not to think of it adrift both architecturally and culturally. A piece of living history, that endures as everything changes around it.

Of course, old isn't always good. There's no point clinging onto the past if it's no longer fit for purpose. I mean, I sometimes get nostalgic about those little pots of pre-grated Parmesan, that smelt like sick yet seemed such a revelation in the late 80's, but I don't want to sprinkle them on my pasta anymore.

Thankfully the Shepherdess is reassuringly nostalgic, while still having a place in the modern world. There's a big all day breakfast menu - the builder's being the most popular, on our first visit we were the only ones not wearing hi-vis for most of it - but also porridge and poached eggs and even a 'Nick the Greek brekkie', with grilled halloumi, olives and chopped salad.

Lunchtime sees comforting classics like pies with peas, liver and bacon, scampi, chops, salads (the tinned sardine option is pleasingly retro, if pretty unappetising) and jacket spuds. And a huge choice of sandwich fillings can be ordered on breads ranging from baps to bagels, brown sliced to baguettes. 

Just. Look. At. That. Thick cut bacon, grilled tomato, perfect cheap sausage with it's burnished coat reassuringly paste-like middle; excellent mushrooms (mushrooms seem very tricky to get right) and a chip breakwater stopping the baked beans from escaping (imperative - TE).

While bubble and squeak is my favourite potato application to accompany breakfast, I'm really quite into any kind of fried potato tin the morning, even the controversial chip. Not least because I know it upsets the magical Stealth, and so I always ensure I send her a photo. It's actually almost impossible to avoid a chip here as most plates feature a couple, even if they are not requested, as a kind of garnish.

I asked for a couple of slices of bread alongside, so I could make a cheeky chip butty.  Soft white sliced and hot salty chips melting into the the butter, another clear advantage of having fried spuds on the plate.

I'm not sure that a bagel with three poached eggs, no skimping here, hollandaise and smoked salmon (plus half a dozen chips) is the best option on a raging hangover; but what do I know? (yeah, yeah, no one likes a smugkins - TE).

Quite a lot, as it happens, as I watched the Ewing valiantly attempt her breakfast after the shenanigans of the previous night - involving much red wine at The Z in Shoreditch and ending up with her carrying a cup of hot chocolate across the hotel room and into bed in a manoeuvre that would have made Mrs Overall proud. She wasn't enamoured with the packet sauce, but I think too much sauce the evening before had as much to do with that... 

In my old age I think I'm becoming a less is more kinda girl (although I'm still not into vanilla ice cream or ready salted crisps), and on my most recent visit I went with a classic cabbie combo, but with #noegg and extra mushrooms. Plenty of salt and vinegar on the  steaming hot chips and two rounds of toast, for a toasted bacon sarnie, on the side. As close to an early morning state of transcendence as I'm ever going to get.

When the waitress asked Ewing 'chips or salad?' there was a half second pause, to which she quickly interjected before my wife could reply; 'chips!' Of course it had to be chips, especially when they are freshly cooked, crisp and fluffy like these.

To go with her chips she ordered a cheese and mushroom omelette, a childhood favourite her mum used to make for her. Despite my enduring egg hatred I've kind of got a feeling I'd quite like an omelette if I could get over my distrust. I valiantly tried a mouthful of this, and while it was about fifty per cent cheese, it was really rather good.

While a crazy array of Inception-esque buildings continue to shoot up around it, and you can eat your way around the globe in the restaurants nearby - from Mexican to Scandinavian, to ramen - the Shepherdess remains as a wonderfully isolated, but never alone, example of old school London.

Wednesday, 21 March 2018

Oldroyd - ageing well

Never let it be said that I’m not at the cutting-edge of the London food scene, but in the the week we finally managed to make it to Oldroyd for lunch – for once the Ewing’s choice, made after seeing endless pictures of their seasonal food on social media, nearly three years after they first opened, it was announced eponymous chef and owner, Tom, was to open a new French-inspired pub and dining room in Hackney.

While I was tempted to congratulate him in person, after spotting him sitting by the window as we were lead up to the bijou dining area on the first floor, he seemed engrossed in his laptop while singing along to the Isley Brothers, so I stuck with a bit of synchro humming along to Summer Breeze in solidarity.

Lunch sees a keenly priced set menu which features a short list of lovely-sounding seasonal things, all of which I wanted to eat. Of course, we had to start with a drink and what better than to herald a touch of mild weather after a battering from the Beast from the East, than a bottle of minerally, melon-scented Muscadet.

To start I chose calcots; the semi mythical vegetable from Catalonia that are often 'described as large spring onions or small leeks'. They are traditionally served barbecued or grilled, as they were here, with a romesco sauce made of roasted peppers and ground almonds.

While excited to try them, I was also a little dubious they could live up to their reputation. After all, what's all that exciting about a large spring onion or a small leek. It turns out quite a bit, especially when you've got a charred bit of outer leaf mixed up with a sweet bit from the centre, and topped it all with the smoky, nutty romesco, which was lick the plate good.

The Ewing's plate was an equally beautiful combo of salt code brandade, monk's beard and soft boiled egg. Of the two of the three elements I tried (#nobadegg) the salt cod puree was fluffy and light, yet rich and savoury. Monksbeard, or agretti, was another first. Dubbed an Italian samphire - it hails from Tuscany, where it was grown by monks, from which its name came - it was grassy and slightly salty and helped complete a perfect dish for an early spring day. 

The special of the day (which can also be part of the set menu) was the rare breed pork tonnato; thin slices of cold meat (traditionally veal, but pork is common) in a creamy tuna mayo, anointed with capers, anchovies and oregano leaves. A dish that's seldom seen, it's one my very favourite things to eat and a must order when I do see it. Here it was perfectly assembled, leaving me - apart from the odd murmur of sheer joy - momentarily struck down in silent awe (a joyous moment for all those who experience it - TE). The perfect surf and turf.

To go alongside, and dredge through the leftover pools of glossy tuna mayo, a salad of beautiful butter-yellow castelfranco leaves, with their distinctive pink speckles, came dressed with a sweet and sour hazelnut dressing that took the edge off their gentle bitterness.

Hake, pink fir potatoes and watercress was another Insta dream. A tranche of boneless rolled fish was just cooked, so it flaked apart with little more than a nudge with the tine of the Ewing's fork; the waxy potatoes below bathed in a pool of verdant sauce.

The only duff note came with the Ewing's pudding choice; a scoop of rhubarb sorbet. Despite her grumbles that ice cream or sorbet wasn't a real pudding, she chose it anyway, then grumbled... To be fair it missed the excitement of the previous courses, being too sweet and missing the proper grimace that should accompany a good rhubarb pud. Still looked pretty in pink, though.

My apple and cinnamon tart with vanilla ice cream was my kind of pud, even though I had to share half with the Ewing and I could have probably eaten twice as much of it again. But then I am greedy. While usually an autumnal combo, there are few better things than apple and cinnamon at any time of the year.

While I might be off the pace, I've still got impeccable taste, and thankfully Oldroyd managed to exceed those exacting standards. Hopefully it won't take as long to get over to Hackney.

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)