Thursday, 17 April 2014

Bluegrass BBQ, High Wycombe

While I can get some awesome North Indian curries, enjoy a roast and a bitter in front of the fire in a a plethora of smashing country pubs and even get authentic wood-fired pizza that would make a Neapolitan jealous, Buckinghamshire has never been on the barbecue trail.

Which is why I read a story promising authentic American 'cue, printed last year in the local rag, with suitable amounts of derision and depression. To be fair, the story seemed so ripe for parody it would have been hard to invent; the opening of a new BBQ shack, owned by a Brit who had been to Texas, that was replacing the 'Ladies and Gentleman's club' (sadly, it's real name) on the back streets of High Wycombe. 

The story also reported Bluegrass would be kitted out with 'American vintage wall art, booths, a wooden shack counter and metal chairs... all juxtaposed next to a Tudor wall painting dating back to 1590/1600'. The food would be served on trays, and included jacket potatoes. I cried a tear of anticipatory despair.

So how great it was to be completely and comprehensively wrong; not only is Bluegrass serving true 'cue, it's also pretty damn smokin'.

Yes, there are jackets, but they are cooked in the smoker and loaded with meat, slaw or pit beans. The, all British, meats are all slow smoked for 48 hours and the team includes the only non-American Grand Champion of the Jack Daniels Invitational BBQ contest. As the websites states, that's a pretty big deal. 

And while, it's true, there's nothing revelatory, and very often lots that's depressingly derisory, about food piled in enamel dishes and tables loaded with rolls of paper towels, the heart and passion here proves this is more than some provincial bandwagon-jumping covered in a sheen of sugary sauce.

If sugary sauces happen to be your thing, then fear not as Bluegrass has standard ketchup and Kansas sticky bbq crowd pleasers. They also make their own spicy Louisiana sauce, a mustard-y Carolina sauce and a tommato-y Tennessee number. A side of the dirty mayo that they slather on their burgers is also a must for dipping your fries or, very good, onion rings.

Of course the real draw is the meat. Ribs are very good; crusty and yielding in equal measure, with a glowing pink smoke ring to assure you this is the real deal. Decent skin on fries come in stupidly large portions alongside, although I could always do with more of their vinegar slaw.

The brisket, my least favourite, is a touch dry for my taste, although I've yet to try it heaped on a burger, where I feel the double beefy hit would really shine. The burnt ends are better, get the beef combo to try both.

The pulled pork is great; thick juicy chunks of meat, singing with fat and smoke and ready to be sauced which ever way you chose. I'm also holding out for some real Texas style hot guts - smoked and served in a bun would would be good, chaps - although they do serve an English style sausage in a sub, topped with battered onion bits, alongside deli sandwiches and sliders.

The burgers are also worth a shout out; 'reverse seared - smoked precisely and finished on the char grill', these patties are smoky, deep and compact and work best with a good pile of shredded pork, onion rings, pickles, and dirty mayo for lubrication. Meat fiends can go with the Pit Boss, which adds brisket, cheese and bacon to the mix.

Puddings, if you get that far, are home made and even come in handy trays so you can take home the leftovers. Both the Oreo and Hershey Salted Caramel Pie and the Reese's Peanut Butter Cheesecake are as thoroughly wicked as they sound, and are worth every gloriously claggy calorie.

Of the trio I've yet to try the Key Lime Pie, but I have tried the Stewart's Key Lime soda. The height of bottled sugary artificiality, and quite delightful. There's also Jelly Belly and Jolly Rancher sodas, root beer and craft beer, although the the bottles of Dixie on my last visit could have been a few degrees cooler.

It may not be hard (the nearest recent competition coming from discovering local purveyors to keep me in supplies of both Mint M&Ms and potato vodka - not from the same shop, sadly), but Bluegrass ranks up there with one of the best things to happen to Wycombe for a while. 

While that might sound like being damned with faint praise, I've eaten plenty of barbecue recently and this place stands toe to toe with the best I've sampled on these shores. You also get to wash your rib-glazed hands post-feast in these snazzy metal pails, complete with oil can soap dispensers; almost worth getting sticky fingers for.

Bluegrass BBQ on Urbanspoon

Thursday, 10 April 2014

Cocktails & Chicken - Callooh Callay and Jubo

These days my idea of a perfect Saturday night mostly involves a curry, the cat curled up on my legs and staying awake until the end of Casualty. Sometimes, though, it's nice to hang with the cool kids; if not just to prove I've still got it.

Not to do things by halves, I managed to get a table at hip Shoreditch hotspot Callooh Callay. While this may be rather removed from my preferred pints of bitter and pork scratchings at the pub,  I realised my plaid shirt would be equally at home in Hoxton as it is in the Home Counties.

Our booking was for the lounge, which is accessed through a wardrobe door (insert Narnia reference here). Yes, it might all sound a bit too cool for school, but it's actually rather fun and the back room proved a bijou and lovely little spot for a few sophisticated bevvies. Our waitress, Tara, was also a gem and looked after us admirably all evening. 

First up the libation I was most looking forward to, the Salt and Vinegar Martini; a Dirty/Gibson mash up with Belvedere vodka and sherry vinegar syrup, finished with a sea salt spray that is spritzed tableside. Not as bracing as it sounded, this had a pleasingly sweet backnote and was dangerously quaffable. Bonus points for both pickled onions and olives as a garnish.

Stealth had (I believe, and I should know as I ended up choosing all her drinks during the evening) an Ike and Cynar, accurately described as 'punchy' on the menu, this was a lethal yet tasty mix of El Dorado rum, PX sherry and Cynar and peach bitters.

We had time for another round and this time the Ewing went for the 20 Regal, 'an old fashioned smoky number, just like Dot Cotton', that's served in a smoke filled Kilner jar. Fun, although a tricky to drink, even when (relatively) sober. I had a Rolla Pisco, a refreshing concoction of walnut bitters, pisco, apple sherbet and pickled celery, and topped off with cider.

Who knows what Stealth had, but she looked rather suave modelling it and it got her sufficiently (belligerent) merry.

Next stop was going to be a restorative Vietnamese on the Kingsland Road, but first we had to wait for Abi, our wing man for the evening. This lead us to the Bedroom Bar, almost directly opposite Callooh Callay, for another round of drinks. 

While first impressions were not terribly auspicious it was busy enough to be buzzing and quiet enough to find a two top free in the corner. With Stealth dispatched to get painkillers, the Ewing decided to venture down past the bar to try find a larger table.

It was only when we were ensconced at our new perch at the other end of the venue - snuggled up to our new friends from LA - that I clocked the fact that they were hosting Jubo, 'an exciting late night Korean style chicken canteen, drawing inspiration from the K-Towns of Wilshire Blvd and Manhattan'; a spot I'd had my eye on trying after my Twitter feed exploded with crispy wings and ssäm.

Abi's arrival heralded another round of cocktails, including a Bed Head for Stealth - 'a mixture of three rums and guava juice and limited to two per person'. - and my Seoul Bliss, from the Jubo menu, served with soju, vodka, pineapple and lime.

The wisdom of ordering cocktails that are restricted due to potency can be illustrated by the above picture  which perfectly contrasts Abi's sophisticated entrance and the Ewing's drunken photobombing. Keeping in theme with her dreamy appearance, Abi drank a Duvet Cocktail - a mix of vodka, berries, Chambord and cream, tasting like 'a Petit Filous', while modelling Stealth's beer.

The menu is short and to the point; subs with steak or chicken, noodle soup, fried rice, Korean fried chicken and steamed buns. The organised can also pre-order ssäm (two servings are available each night); a kilo of either bavette or slow roasted pork belly, served sliced with ssamjang, sesame oil, spring onion, little gem and rice.

We split the Chicken Dinner Platter, eight strips, eight wings, three sides - two orders of the steamed pork buns and an extra portion of pickles. The chicken, a mixture of hot and sweet and soy garlic, was very good; crisp, crunchy, juicy and remarkably similar to this recipe for Korean fried chicken I knocked up for the blog, even if I am tooting my own horn.

The buns were also on the money, a simple marriage of pillowy dough, fatty meat, pickles and Sriatcha that makes them the ultimate drinking snack. Sides were so-so, chips cold and cardboardy, slaw without much of the advertised kimchi punch. The pickles were good though, even if the shitaake mushrooms had the unfortunate resemblance to slices of raw liver.

To accompany, a Hackney Hopster, from the London Fields Brewery went down a treat. The chicken plate for one comes with a bottle of Hite if you prefer the beer to match your food, rather than your location.

Food dispatched, it was time for another round of cocktails; a very nice Bedroom Margarita, with passionfruit elderflower and lime; a punchy Tequila Expresso; the Hoxton Fizz with apple vodka and mint; and Stealth's Maggie's Kiss, a drink that somehow took three attempts to order and was memorably described by its recipient as 'innocuous, pointless and sugary'. It probably could have done with a dose of her bile...

Jubo on Urbanspoon

Post chicken blow out, we decided to roll back across the street for a nightcap at Callooh Callay, helped past the doorman by Abi's befriending of Byron, the bouncer at the Bedroom Bar and a thoroughly nice chap.

Who knows quite what else we managed to imbibe during the rest the evening. Looking at my photos (or, more accurately, scrolling back through the Ewing's iphone the next day) it seems to confirm I had a No. 38; Bombay Sapphire gin with Indian takeaway syrup, and lemon, all wrapped in brown paper with a lager shooter. Spicy and refreshing, and served in a handy paper cup that made dancing to Cameo and Justin Timberlake easier. That was quickly followed by a Va Va Prune with Appleton VX rum, prune liqueur, egg white and black pepper, the remnants of which are still on my jacket sleeve.

There was definitely another Rolla Pisco for Stealth, and a Spruce Collins with Ketel One, Amontillado, spruce and Aperol for Abi. The Ewing, somehow, recollected really enjoying her Disco Gin Pernod; a mix of Tanqueray, orange syrup and Pernod absinthe; and there was something fruity and frothy with cucumber floating in it at some point; answers on a postcard...

Somewhere around this point we tried, and thankfully failed, to order a giant glass skull of intoxicating liquid, adorned with four straws, that we had just seen going out to another table - I think they had run out of ingredients - but we were subbed another round of drinks on the house, which was very nice and fuelled a final bout of drunken dancing.

Staff were saved from more star-shaped shenanigans - Stealth's moves are quite something to behold - by the rush back down Old Street for the last tube. A top night that was crowned among the pantheon of recent greats with the discovery of the good old 'pile of hands' shot on my phone, combined with surprising lack of hangover come the next morning.

Calloh Callay on Urbanspoon

Monday, 7 April 2014

The Plough, Winchmore Hill

When I was a student, I, very briefly, found myself with a job in a seat belt factory. Needless to say carefully measuring lengths of webbing, before cutting them with ferociously hot, sharp blade, wasn’t to become my forte; although it turns out I was rather adept at using the injection moulding machine that made the little ‘clickers’ that hold your belt in place.

Of course, this story bears no relevance to the Plough, apart from the fact that, rather incongruously, both seatbelt factory and pub occupy the same road in the small Chiltern village of Winchmore Hill (compounding coincidence, my Mum also lived in the very same village for several years). So now, every time I return here, I wistfully think back to those carefree days where everything seemed more fun -even with the copious plastic burns up my forearms and little red marks on my clocking in card.

Back in the seatbelt factory days, like most students, I was also beholden to pizza, and wasn't very fussy  about what type; from family holidays in Italy, to consuming bags of the 10 for a pound pizza 'biscuits' found in the freezer section of Iceland. And all while taking full advantage of Stealth's 50% discount for having a part time job in Pizza Hut.

While I may (or may not) have matured in many ways my love of a good pie remains, and I was very pleased to hear that, after laying idle for a while after a failed gastro pub venture, the Plough had been revamped as a pub/ Italian osteria hybrid.

And they've done it rather well, as I noticed during my first revisiting for a weekday lunch with the Ewing. To the left as you walk in is the long bar and flag stoned floor, complete with open fire and ale on pump, while to the left is a smart and tidy, two-tiered restaurant, with views into the open plan kitchen and shelves full of Italian wines.

It’s pretty rare for somewhere to retain two distinct spaces without having to compromise somewhere, but the Plough genuinely seems like the sort of place you would come for a drink as well as to eat. The picnic sets outside on their beautifully manicured lawns mean there is also plenty of space for dogs and children to roam in less inclement weather, and boasts lovely views across the Chiltern Hills.

While there's the usual roll call of Italian favourites - home made pasta, soups, sharing platters of cured meats and fish, grilled steaks and the like, it was the pizzas and calzones, fired in their wood oven, that were the main draw. Add the fact that, according to their website, they 'members of the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana', and I was steeling myself for a treat. 

My first pie from the Plough was the Pulcinella, with an icy pint of Peroni to accompany; if I had any fears, they quickly dissipated, with the pizza being a rival to any other I've had on these shores, and many I've eaten abroad, too, with a crust that was both chewy and charred in just the right proportions.

This was essentially a pizza bianca, with the milky richness cut through by the fresh cherry tomatoes. The cheeses, the sharp ricotta and milky mozzarella were plentiful, as was the ferrous note from the spinach, but I could have done with more of the crisp pancetta which pepped up the odd mouthful with its salty, porcine note.

The Ewing was swayed by the lunch special, a dish of lobster taglietelle with a glass of Pecorino wine, for a not unreasonable £18. I've pretty much given up ordering seafood pasta dishes in restaurants, after being served far too many sparse plates of cotton wool-crustaceans drowned in metallic tomato sauces, but this dish was a simple triumph; plentiful chunks of sweet lobster entwined in toothsome pasta.

We both went with something from the special board for pudding, enticed by our charming Italian waitress who assured us they were worth it. I had the warm torta di riso with candied citrus pieces and pouring cream, a perfect mixture between cake and rice pudding, two of my very favourite things. While the Ewing chose the chocolate and fresh raspberry torte, a perfect mixture of two of her favourites, too.

After our initial recce, we were soon back for Sunday lunch with my aunt, uncle and cousins. On this occasion they were hosting one of their local and Italian food fairs, and there was plenty of chance to stock up on canoli shells; rose wine; magnificent pecorino, hewn from a huge truckle; and Piedmont hazelnuts covered in chocolate for the kids (and the Ewing).

This time we started with a, very good, platter of cured meats - including bresola, fennel-flecked salami, parma hama and a lovely coppa, served with oil, balsamic and their wood fired bread.

I then moved on to the Parma pizza, a Margarita base strewn with rocket leaves and topped with a generous amount of Parmesan, and Parma ham. The crispy and chewy base was spot on,with the home-made chilli oil provided a decent kick.

The Ewing enjoyed her unusual autumnal combo of (rather sparse) taleggio, pears and walnut, while my aunt was very happy with her favourite, the Napoletana, the classic mix of tomato, mozzarella anchovies and capers. As you can see, my cousins, G and L, were also fans, with big smiles and empty plates all round. (As a bonus, the Ewing also got all of L's Olives).

Our latest trip was when I took my Mum, Sam and Grandad for lunch to celebrate my Mum's birthday. This time the Ewing and I decided to split the Gamberini, with chilli, rocket tomato and prawns; and the la Scozzese with mozzarella, smoked salmon and fennel (sans the fennel, as they had run out).

While fish and cheese make a controversial pairing for most Italians, the mild and creamy mozzarella worked pretty nicely with the smoked fish, especially with a spritz of lemon and lots of freshly ground black pepper. The Gamberini was also good, with plenty of sweet prawns and spiked with fresh chillies and peppery rocket. 

Despite the fact we were now flagging ever so slightly after our celebrations the night before, the hazlenut meringue with a spiced fruit compote and the milk caramel and walnut tart, both from the specials board, looked too good too pass up.

The tart was heart-stoppingly sweet and rich, and all the better for it; crumbly pastry holding a buttery filling chock-full of toasted walnuts and served with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. The Ewing also enjoyed her Ottolenghi-esque nut flecked meringue, served with sweet and sour stone fruit and whipped cream.

To finish, 87 year old Grandad tried, and enjoyed, his first espresso; stating, in his words, 'it's always good to try new things'. But, while he's right, when you've got some where as good as the Plough on your doorstep, it's also good to return to a familiar favourite.

Monday, 31 March 2014

Fish and Chips By the Sea

Fish and chips on the beach - There can be very few things finer to an Englishman than carefully cradling your tightly -parcelled haul down to the sea front,  to be greeting by the pleasingly hot sting of vinegary fug as you unwrap your cache. Never mind if the next twenty minutes are taken up by tricky multi-tasking of fending off seagulls and turning your back to errant wind that threatens to blow sand into your dinner; that first hot chip holds a magic like no other.

The fine spring weather on our recent trip to Suffolk fortunately gave us plenty of opportunities to eat our national dish al fresco. After a morning spent taking a great tour of the local Adnams Brewery – stopping by both their private bar to try the beers followed by their shop/café to sample some wines and spirits - we took a punt on one of their pubs, the Sole Trader, a stone’s throw from the brewery and just behind the famed Lighthouse for some lunch. 

Of course, we weren't the only ones to have the same idea, and a large queue already at the door propelled us along the sea front in search of sustenance, ending up at the Southwold Pier Café.

My expectations were low; at over twenty quid for cod chips, a wally and a cup of tea twice, these were prices for London’s second home owners (a two up two down next to the brewery will set you back a cool half a million, and only two homes in the street are occupied full-time) not day trippers.

Twenty minutes later and I was left eating my words, and some of the finest fish and chips I have eaten. It may have been the vista – we nabbed a seat overlooking the pier and beach, it may have been the blue skies or it may have been the Adnams Ghost Ship, but the whole meal really was superlative. Freshly cooked to order, piping hot and generously portioned; perfection.

Of course it wouldn’t be a trip to the seaside without and Mr Whippy and a walk down the pier, and Southwold has something that sets it apart from the standard penny slot machines and kiss me quick hats. Here is the home of artist Tim Huffkin's arcade on steroids, the utterly wonderful Under the Pier Show.

The Under the Pier show truly is English eccentricity at its best. We spent a happy hour or so busily feeding handfuls of coins in various machines ranging from Whack A Banker - 'At last! A truly rewarding banking experience'; to the Quick Fit couch - 'A completely effortless aerobics workout'.

The Ewing won a billion pounds beating me at Pirate Practice and had her toes tickled and her heart listened to by the Chiropodist and the Doctor respectively, while I had my palm read in the Booth of Truth, was felt up by Autofrisk and enjoyed a condensed holiday, from the airport to the beach an back again in minutes, with Micro Break.

Then there is the Bathysphere 'an epic under seas adventure exposing some of the North Sea's best kept secrets' that include 'raw sewage, Robert Maxwell and mating nuclear waste'; an Instant Weightloss machine that weighs you to great fanfare (complete with flashing lights and sirens), before prescribing nutrients in the form of a single kernel of popcorn, freshly popped as you wait; and the Ewing's favourite Test Your Nerve, complete with dribbling dog, and Rent-A-Dog, where you get to take a borrowed pet for a stroll that's slightly out of the ordinary.

If you want a memento of your visit then be sure to try the Expressive Photobooth; a wobbly seat, lights and fans ensure the moment will be recorded for posterity, although I wouldn't recommend it for your passport photos...

Huffkin's humour also extends to the pier's water clock, which features figures of both the artist and collaborator BLAH peeing on every half hour; and an end of the pier Quantum Tunnelling Telescope quite like any other you may have looked down before. A quintessentially British and quite fabulous experience.

A couple of days later and we were lucky enough to visit Aldeburgh for a chance to sample Giles Coren’s favourite fish and chips, and as he described in the Times thus: ‘“It really was the best fish and chips in the world. Such dense, meaty fish, briney with the recent juices of the sea. Very light batter, dry with its own meatiness from the beef dripping in which it was fried, and a heady fish-meat vapour in the wafer-thin air gap between. Perfect English chips: firm, dry, almost crispy, hot, hot, hot with a ‘mouth-filling yomp’ of floury potato’

It’s sister gaff, the Aldeburgh Fish and chips shop, may be better known, but this place is purportedly just as good, and with less fearsome queues to contend with – like manhattans famous Shake Shack, they also have their own web cam to keep track of the queues.

While the take away was rather quiet for a Friday lunchtime, the restaurant upstairs was already full, so we decided to brave the elements and take our haul onto the Suffolk shingle.

While the cod and chips were a few marks off those we had enjoyed in Southwold, the batter was crisp and the chips very fine. I also enjoyed the simple pleasures of a pot of flouro mushy peas for dipping and a can of bitter shandy to help it all down.

Even the seagulls are a better breed in this part of the world, keeping a respectful distance as we enjoyed our feast, and to crown things off the sun made an appearance as I speared the final chip, meaning we could enjoy a walk down the beach to see Maggie Hambling’s Scallop, a tribute to Benjamin Britten, Aldeburgh’s most famous resident.

The the ideal end to the holiday, overlooking the swirling North Sea and feasting on a banquet of crisp cod and perfectly fried potatoes. There can be few things finer than enjoying the restorative panacea of a portion of cure-all fish and chips eaten on a Friday afternoon; a, quite rightly, veritable British institution and the perfect way to mark any occasion.