Monday, 25 July 2016

Brickston

It’s been a long time since I used to be a regular visitor to SW9 (around 1999, when a friend had a flat just off the high street and we spent the Saturday night under the arches at Heaven and Sunday wishing we hadn't) but there’s still nothing quite like Brixton on a Friday summer’s afternoon. Walking onto Electric Avenue you feel a palpable jolt; the muggy atmosphere and smells of meat grilling over charcoal, overripe mangoes and dried fish feels a little like a Spike Lee film.

Of course now I’m older and a (little) wiser; and, as if to confirm that fact, my most recent visit to Brixton - or 'Brickston' on this occasion, to chalk up a couple more #brutaltour stops - didn’t coincide with a visit to Plan B (RIP) or a gig at the Academy, but a work meeting of information and record managers in Westminster. Which made rather a staid contrast to the bustle of Brixton, where I was confronted by a riotous steel band and a baying mob, upset that KFC was unexpectedly closed, within minutes of emerging from the tube.

First up was Brixton Recreation Centre - architect George Finch for Lambeth Borough Council 1973-1985. With its red brick frontage and iconic concrete pillars, the Rec remains a well-used hub of the community despite murmurings that the amount needed for its upkeep mean it will eventually be razed to the ground for housing and a new centre built on the site of Brixton Pop, a shipping container food court next-door.  If it’s open and your passing, it’s also worth a look inside at the twisting brick staircases and glass atrium.

Southwyck House - architect Magda Borwiecka, 1972-81, for Lambeth Borough council - is an imposing building on Coldharbour Lane that’s part of the Somerleyton Estate. Known locally as the ‘barrier block’, its original purpose was, indeed, to protect Brixton from the proposed South Cross Route motorway proposed to run through the centre of town. With the road unbuilt the building was squatted in before it was even open and the unwelcoming façade soon proved a hotspot for crime and drugs.

A grimly fascinating building that doesn’t appear to have received the same adoration of other estates in South London, although it is now safer and cleaner - helped by one block now being split into three, with new lifts installed between. But the main building still casts an imposing shadow and the new entrances and external stairways somewhat resemble Stasi watchtowers, albeit with jaunty flashes of red on the roofs and railings.

After a bit of aimless and happy wandering about around the market followed by an animated conversation with an interesting character on Coldharbour Lane about the merits of, well I'm still not really sure quite what of, I walked up the road for an early solo dinner at Nanban.  

If you're a fan of Masterchef you may remember an experimental chef from a few years back who came from the American midwest via Tokyo who won with a menu that included cheddar cheesecake with whiskey jelly. That man was Tim Anderson who, after marrying an English woman and settling in the Big Smoke, has finally opened his own restaurant.

Inspired by 'Japanese soul food', Nanban is housed in an old eel and pie house, hence the electric eel dish (also a nod to Brixton's famous Ave), served deep fried with ginger vinegar and found on the small plates menu. Also expect to see other east/west mashups such as burgers topped with pork belly and korean gochujang paste and spaghetti with mentaiko (spicy cured cod's roe), pancetta and a poached egg.

Beer is bespoke, with the restaurant collaborating with Pressure Drop to produce Nanban Kampai – a wheat and citrus infused IPA. Served a touch too warm, this was a juicy and citrussy beer that  really benefited from the creamy/banana notes bought by the wheat (not normally one of my favourite styles). Complex, and a bigger hitter at 6.5% ABV, it stood up well to the spice, although you might have trouble yourself if you drank a few.

The KFJ (karaage fried jackfruit) was one of the most interesting dishes I’ve had for a while. The under ripe fruit, when coated in seasoned flour and deep fried, has a taste and texture that is confusingly close to chicken. When I Googled it afterwards it has already been (predictably) touted as a new ‘superfood’, and I even found a bbq’d ‘pulled jackfruit’ recipe on the Guardian for massive eco hipster points. The yuzu mayo alongside was also rather lovely, the smooth richness cut though by the hybrid citrus tang.

When I was in Tokyo, I was fortunate enough to get to Fuungi– which, even though it was only ten minutes’ walk from our hotel, took an intent amount of studying Google maps to find, not helped by also walking there in the tail of a hurricane. There the tsukune, or dipping, noodle is king. Bowls of rich and creamy anchovy and pork broth, adorned with nothing but half a boiled egg, are served alongside separate bowls of plain steamed ramen noodles for dunking and slurping.

Nanban offers two versions; the Leopard, a deep piggy broth whose surface is ‘spotted’ with garlic oil  and served with noodles topped with garlic chips, crispy shallots and parmesan cheese; and a Brixton inspired version with curry goat, scotch bonnet and pickled bamboo shoots. Being in SW9, I chose the latter and was rewarded with a bowl of rich and spicy meat curry, with half a gooey ‘onsen’ egg (untried, but with a beguilingly bright yolk) and a dish of springy ramen topped with crispy shallots and aforementioned shoots.

If I was being fussy, I preferred the bigger and bouncier boiled Japanese noodles to the tightly oiled curls of Nanban’s ramen, although the pickled shoots were inspired and the goat curry, while not being G.O.A.T, had a punchy (boom) depth that I’m sure even Ali would have appreciated.

The biggest issue is that it’s an enormously inelegant dish to eat. My chopstick skills are fairly decent (I even received compliments from an elderly couple in Kyoto, who obviously had very low expectations of my table manners) but, despite having the Poirot-esque napkin down the front of my shirt and head bowed I still ended up looking rather like a leopard myself at the end of dinner.

Nanban Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Nanban does offer ice cream – the surprisingly ‘vanilla’, vanilla flavour, served with grilled bananas and crispy fried noodles – but, in an ongoing bid to end all my blog posts this summer with an iced dessert, I headed to the market to sample some of the much lauded gelato from Lab G in Granville Arcade.

From the outside it may look a little faded and nondescript, and inside there’s only a modest selection of traditional flavours, but my scoop of pistachio may have been the finest I have ever eaten. I could reel off all the clichéd superlatives –smooth, sweet, creamy, nutty – but just know it was as good as anything I’ve eaten in Italy, and the same price as a Whippy.

It isn't all different down in SW9 since my halcyon days of hanging around South London; walking back home after dinner I saw this magnificent mk3 Ford Fiesta, which, in red, was also my very first car. And, just like back the 90s, I still drive a red Ford now - this one is named Archie after Steve Archibald the red-haired Spurs winger - proving most things never really change (and yeah, I'm still a terrible driver, too...).

Friday, 8 July 2016

It's all gravy


Despite my Brutalist London map only being published at the tail-end of last year, there has been a sense of growing worry around managing to see everything on the #brutaltour. Not, as you might expect, because of my inertia and poor planning, but as the realisation that many of the buildings/estates on the list – including Robin Hood Gardens, Thamesmead, and the recently sold Welbeck Street car park -  have been marked for redevelopment or are in the process of being demolished.

This was a fact that became all too apparent when I went to Google Keybridge House, an ex-BT telephone exchange once voted the ugliest office block in London that even Nikolaus Pevsner described as ‘foreboding’ – to find not only had it been condemned, it had already been razed to the ground.

Fortuitously, the sense of failure of not being even a third of the way through and already usurped by the plot to turn ‘Nine Elms’ into an extension of London's playground for the rich, was soon replaced by a lucky discovery. American artist Rachel Champion had been commissioned to create a garden using the rubble from Keybridge House, and it was on display through June as part of the South Bank Chelsea Fringe Festival. Which is how I came to be up bright and early on a Saturday, weaving past the Friday night stragglers in the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, on my way to try and salvage the situation (badum-tish). 

New Spring Gardens was, as promised, a 'garden' made of rubble in one of the railway arches on Newport Street. Whatever your thoughts on the hulking monolith from which this pile of concrete was wrought, I found it pretty poignant, standing amongst the clumps of grass and piles of brick dust, thinking of all the other buildings that may soon join Keybridge in a ignominious end.

As we were in the area, we took a little detour to see Jeff Koons's exhibition at the Newport Gallery. Officially titled 'Now', I unofficially christened it 'But, is it Art?', which was also the question I asked the Ewing every time she stopped to look at the exhibits (and a fine example of putting my art history degree to good use).

I think she was pretty happy when I left her in peace to look around the motley collection of plastic garden chairs, porn and stainless steel 'balloons', and went on a recce to find somewhere for a, well needed, beer. That somewhere was the Zeitgeist, Vauxhall's very only German pub, where all draught beers are a fiver a pint and pretzels grow on wooden trees on the bar. Now that's the kind of interactive installation I'm interested in.

At the risk of repeating myself every time I actually get my act together to write a blog (finally trek somewhere ‘on the radar’/ look at some concrete/eat lunch/have an ice cream), an afternoon in the Zeitgeist beer garden meant I was looking forward to finally visiting the original Clapham branch of Flip and Dip for dinner. 

Prior to our visit I had already spent a considerable while pouring over the glistening patties and squeezy cheese on F&D's social media feed, and in a saturated (boom) market it’s a testament that their offerings still manage to stand out  - mainly thanks to the addition of sliced roast meat (lamb or beef) and troughs of dipping gravy, based on LA's french dip sandwiches, that accompany their signature burgers. 

The drinks are notable too - we enjoyed jugs of Sambrooks Wandle, brewed down the road in Battersea and tin cups of extra thick Cherry Ripe milkshake, based on the Antipodean cherry and coconut chocolate bar, that got the Ewing grinning/grimacing.

The Flip and Dip, with roast beef and extra green chilli, was, hands down, the best burger I have had for a long time. It wasn’t easy to eat, nor was it dignified, but the combo of double beef (both perfectly cooked to a blushing pink) cheese sauce, pickles and chillies, with judicious dipping in to the drippings - saved from roasting their huge joints of meat - between bites (in case of bun disintegration), proves that southern girls love gravy, too.

Apparently, some people apparently don’t rate the cheese sauce - lurid orange stuff, that oozed like a magma flow down my wrists as I held my burger aloft – these people are wrong. It’s wonderful gloopy stuff, that can also be requested smothered across your fries, although we left ours naked for better gravy penetration. Only a great deal of willpower and my last remaining shreds of dignity stopped me licking the tray after taking this picture.

Dip & Flip Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

I have also decided - following my last blog and with the reasoning that I needed something to cheer me up after a ‘turbulent’ few weeks in the real world - that all blog posts over the summer (which is supposedly going on right now, if you haven’t noticed) will end with ice cream, Because everyone loves ice cream.

As there aren’t any puds on offer at Flip and Dip, we took the tube back to the Edgware Road, where the sultry humidity made it the perfect opportunity for booza al haleb, a pistachio-studded Syrian ice cream with the addition of mastic that gives it a ‘chewy’ texture while stopping it’s descent into a milky puddle in hot climates. 

A useful trait for a frozen dessert both in Damascus or sitting sweltering by the fountains at Marble Arch, from under who’s marbled columns I could just about see the Grade II listed Centre Point. The Seifert designed tower block may remain a divisive building - Pevsner called 'coarse in the extreme' - but it gives me comfort that there's still a future for concrete.

Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Iberica and Ice Cream Ale

When I was young and carefree (not that long ago) and unencumbered by the albatrosses of a mortgage and an adopted cat and trying to keep my, previously gleaming, rust bucket on the road, I used to like to travel, and the Iberian peninsula was always a favourite destination.

Now days, while I'm keen to get away whenever possible, spending the late summer in Seville or a few nights in Bilbao seem to have been usurped by trips to Salford, Hackney Wick and the Gordano services on the M5. As much as I enjoy a pint of Manchester bitter or a bottle of West Country scrumpy, and I don't even mind the drizzle, sometimes you have a hankering for calamari and cold sherry.

On another glamorous recent trip, this time to West Yorkshire to visit the family, my aunt and uncle must have sensed my pining for foreign climes and offered to take us out to lunch at the newly opened Iberica in Leeds city centre. It was as though the weather gods knew too, and attempted to recreate the scorchio Spanish climate for our stay. Indeed, for probably the first time on record, somebody got sunburnt just outside Leeds. Sadly that somebody was me; my nose is still peeling in protest.

Found in Grade II listed Hepper House, a former Bonhams auction house, it's a striking building, with a glass roof and vaulted ceiling, that oozes Moorish sophistication the way a good tortilla oozes when you cut it. The unisex loos are as impressive as the main dining room, with their patterned tiles, piles of fluffy towels and fancy sink. Apologies for the blurry photo, either the result of switching on my macro lens or my greasy fingers from eating too many croquettas.

As we were with my aunt, clearly there was bottle of vino tinto involved, in this case a beefy tempranillo from a big wine list. They also offer a huge range of 'fishbowl' GnT's - although sadly not at Spanish prices. Beerwise, along with ice cold Mahou from the tap, they stock bottles of Alhambra Reserva 1925. An interesting beer, as far as lagers go, with a spicy, malty flavour that hid its 6.4% well and paired nicely with the fried food. 

The jamon croquettas were masterful; a gossamer thin crust gently cradling the wobbly, ham-flecked bechamel interior. Blistered padron peppers were sweet, salty and smoky, although surely the best thing about them is playing chilli roulette and hoping (or not) that you get the hot one.

The tortilla, although requested to be served still soft in the centre, oozed more of an unappetising watery puddle when cut into. Taste wise, it was pretty good, if a little salty with the potatoes seeming to have already been fried, like little chunks of patatas bravas.

Better were the chorizo lollipops; chunks of charcuterie impaled on cocktails sticks and dipped in batter that had turned a vivid Donald Trump hue on deep frying from the paprika in the sausage. A well-judged pear aioli was both sweet with fruit and punchy with garlic.

The standout plate was the, gloriously gothic, arroz negro; a short grain rice dish cooked with cuttlefish ink and a fish stock and finished with prawns and springy rings of cephalopod. A dish that leaves you with ghoulishly blackened lips that makes you suddenly thankful for the abundance of mirrors in the loos.

Hake with green sauce and a token smattering of salad was light and fresh and accurately cooked, if a little underwhelming - the biggest danger when you try and refine the salty, smoky rough and tumble of good Spanish food. The Ewing did have high praise for the bed of sauteed sugar snaps, though.

The dish of the day (offered with your choice of tapas to start for a bargain £12) was fabada, the frugal stew of beans and pork from Asturias. Although the thrifty nature of the dish was emphasised by the solitary slices of morcilla and chorizo bobbing on top, and the porky stock the beans were cooked in was a little lacking in depth, the beans themselves were wonderful; nutty and creamy and cooked to the perfect consistency.

Tocinillo de Cielo is a desert that roughly translates as heaven’s custard or heaven's little pig - surely the most glorious name for a pudding. It even looks a bit like bacon, with its two tone stripes.

Modelled on the ubiquitous wobbly flan (or crème caramel across the border) this is a denser and sweeter dessert, with a rich flavour that reminded me of the egg yolk custard buns that round out a good dim sum feast. The salted caramel ice cream alongside was flawless, although it did take the dish to a burnt sugar crescendo that kept my pancreas working overtime. The only part I couldn’t get excited about were the wafers, that resembled fossilised leaves in the park, and had about as much flavour.

Other desserts included a strawberry cheesecake that was topped with shavings of that well know Spanish cheese, Parmesan. While not a strictly orthodox addition in a Spanish restaurant, I enjoyed the contrast of smooth and bland with sharp and salty. Even better was the fantastically tart and smooth strawberry sorbet, probably the only time I have seen the addition of a sorbet enhance a cheesecake in any way, although I would happily have eaten it on its own.

To carry on the holiday theme we had to have ice cream, this time in the form of the Neapolitan Pale Ale brewed by Northern Monk in collaboration with Tall Boys Beer Market (treasure trove of beery beverages found in the Corn Exchange). 

Originally a one-off, the brew was so popular they have just brewed the next batch, and we enjoyed it fresh from the brewery. Still one of my favourite places for a pint, Northern Monk combines fantastic beer  - both their own and others – with great staff, cakes and pies and the best light I’ve ever seen, making even my blurry phone pics look good on Instagram; even with #nofilter. And while north Leeds may not be Lloret del Mar, the beer is much better.

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.