Thursday, 20 October 2016

Keep Portland Weird - All the pubs pt.1

Listening to other peoples’ relationship advice is about as helpful as following centenarians tips on making it to a hundred; ‘have different interests’, 'be passionate', 'drink two bottles of Miller and a glass of whisky before bed’ etc. I’ll leave you to decide which answers match which question.

While I don’t have any invaluable tips (although I wouldn’t recommend squeezing your wedding ring with a pair of pliers in an attempt to resize it), if I had to distil the reason I’m still (mostly) happily married, it would probably come down to the Ewing’s reaction to my proposal of spending a few days visiting all the pubs on the Isle of Portland. When I saw her unbridled enthusiasm for an idea that even I thought was a bit ridiculous, I knew I had a keeper.

Which is how we came about traipsing around the limestone-tied ‘island’ - which is actually attached to the mainland at the eastern end of Chesil Beach, the impressive shingle tombolo that stretches 18 miles down the Jurassic Coast - while sampling the wares of the 15 hostelries on the Isle. These pubs being defined by the map on the West Dorset CAMRA page, minus the British Legion, as it’s really a club (mmm...attention to detail - TE), and with the addition of the Punchbowl, which I assume was omitted for not serving ‘real ale’).

Alongside a short write up of each visit, in case anyone should want to follow in our footsteps, I have also invented my own ‘sticky carpet’ rating - devised to celebrate all the wonderful quirks and eccentricities of a proper British pub. 

For a low rating think gastro pub with stripped back floorboards, scented hand cream in the loos, and a seasonal menu involving game and seafood. A high rating is reserved for a boozer with cigarette burns on the loo cistern, a resident dog curled up by the fruit machine and a menu of dry roasted peanuts and scotch eggs. There’s probably some metaphor for modern marriage in there somewhere, but I’ll just leave it as them both being perfect in their own way.

Before our first evening spent getting battered, we stopped for batter of a different sort at the island's most recently opened fish bar, Chesil Chippie - chosen as I was curious to try their more outré offerings of Lyme Bay Scallops, smoked cod goujons and battered samphire, as well as getting my fix of Southern chip shop favourite, the pea fritter. With our food freshly fried to order, and the friendly staff making our short wait much more entertaining, I was looking forward to our al fresco fish supper.

The original idea was to arrive to the last blazes of autumnal sunshine before picking up our supper and scrambling over the pebbles to watch the sunset somewhere over Lyme Regis, but clearly the British climate had other ideas. While the rain held off, the wind (as my Mother had been repeatedly warning me prior to our trip) was whipping particularly ferociously, even for the notoriously gusty Isle of Portland.

Luckily, unlike pesky sand, the pebbles here are far too big to be shifted by a stiff sea breeze and we managed to eat our first dinner on the beach - even if the Ewing ended up as cold as her leftover chips. All the food was well worth windburn, with my favourite being the scallops and the Ewing’s the cod, while we fought over crispy scraps of salty samphire dragged through their impressive homemade tartare sauce. The pea fritter was also particularly brilliant example of the genre and, luckily for me, I got it all to myself.

As we started to fear a side of frostbite with our fish, I was glad there wasn’t far to go to reach our first pub, the The Little Ship, situated almost opposite the chippy. While the temperature didn’t feel much warmer than being outside, the greeting was friendly enough and I was pleased to see a dart board, pool table and fruit machine, which I took as a hopeful portent of the sticky carpet standard of pubs to come. There was even a traditional wooden skittle alley, although it seemed to be being used to store old tables and chairs on our visit.

In what would become a depressingly constant theme to our trip, the cask ale was limited to one choice; Wadworth’s 6X – although we were told there were another couple of casks ‘settling’ behind the bar. Despite the restricted selection it was served in fine condition and made a pleasing first pint. The Ewing, after deciding moments before that she would never eat again, also picked up some lurid blue fizzy sweets that were purportedly helping support cancer charities – offset, no doubt, by the cost of the rise of type two diabetes (supporting charities really is a double edged sword sometimes - TE).

The Little Ship: 2x pints Wadworth 6X £7.00
Sticky carpet rating: 7. Higher than average thanks to the pool table, darts, fruit machine and skittle alley - not in use (oh what could have been...TE). Loos are SC standard, although at least they boasted both soap and loo roll.
Overall score: 5. All the attributes of a good old British boozer, but in a strangely disjointed setting, probably not helped by it being fairly quiet on our visit. My pint was well kept though, and an extra mark for a great soundtrack of Dylan, the Stones and the Doors.

The Cove House Inn - an atmospheric 18th century hostelry built of Portland stone, just two minutes’ walk from our first stop - was much livelier. Being there just for the beer, we were restricted to the bar, as all the tables in the restaurant areas were booked for dinner. No matter, we perched up on our stools and were entertained by our enthusiastic barman as he pulled our Pints of Adnams Broadside.

Despite not being a local beer – the other cask ale offered was Doombar – it was a decent enough pint, but I was more tempted by the food menu, with seasonal offerings such as crab tagliatelle and haddock chowder to compliment the sweeping views of Chesil Cove (had it not already been pitch black by this point). The Ewing wanted a slice of banoffee pie to go with a second pint but, with two stops still to go I checked out the loos (in the name of research - clean but no lights in the cubicles?) and dragged her back into the hoolie raging outside (SO unfair, that banoffee would have been good - TE).

Cove House Inn: 2x  pints Adnams Broadside £7.60
Sticky carpet rating: 5 - with its uneven floors, low-beamed ceilings (mind out if you’ve had a couple) and prime spot on the sea front, the Cove Inn is the sort of charmer that would happily woo your mother. No darts or pool here, but they do serve scratchings and welcome dogs into the bar (and the barman LOVED  my woolly hat, that makes it an 8 for me -  TE).
Overall score: 6.5 - based on our fleeting visit, although the score would have undoubtedly been higher if we had returned for food.

Our next stop was to Castletown, to the far north east of the island, where we hit the The Royal Breakwater; a good looking building that, as its name cunningly suggests, is also a hotel. Inside had a funny kind of atmosphere, somewhere between a holiday club – with parents trying to finish their meals while the children, threatened with bedtime, ran merrily amok – and a proper boozer. The guy we met at the bar was certainly already very well lubricated as he attempted a hilariously disjointed conversation with the, far too accommodating, Ewing.

It was at this point when, after looking at the uninspiring beer selection, I made my move on to the rum and coke. I’m not normally a big spirit drinker, but being as we were in the right neck of the woods, rum seemed as good a choice as any and I eased myself in with a Mountgay Eclipse. A beverage chosen as Bond orders it with soda in QoS, just before he wins the Aston Martin DB5 in a game of poker. The Ewing tried to get her Malibu with pineapple, but the high winds had obviously felled all the palm trees on the island, so she ended up with Coke too.

Royal Breakwater Hotel – 1x Mountgay eclipse and Coke; 1x Malibu and Coke £5.20
Sticky carpet rating: 6.5. Pool table, dart board and fruit machines, plus a trail of ketchup across our table from abandoned sachet, set the scene, while the Malibu added nicely to the retro feel. The loos are accessed by walking across a strange kind of indoor alleyway, but were commendably clean.
Overall rating: 5.5. A friendly place, and I would have been happy to stay for another, but a slightly odd layout and didn’t feel quite ‘pubby’ enough for me.

Moving almost directly next door to our final stop of the evening, (ooo, our fave - TE) The Green Shutters was the pub I had most been looking forward to visiting; attracted by both the reviews and the name - sounding, as it does, like a ‘proper’ boozer, amidst a sea of forgettable generic monikers. Walking in I felt cheered that this was going to be a good stop, reinforced by the ale which, although small in stature, included the local DBC Pilsner, interestingly served on cask.

The Ewing sampled a pint of the above, while I stuck with the Mountgay and coke. Both solid choices, but the real excitement came with the snack we chose to accompany them – Shakey’s Black Country scratchings. I had seen bags of this strange looking snack, with its little yellow cartoon pig on the front, behind all the previous bars we had visited; and now, my hunger slowly returning, decided it was finally time to sample them.

Despite the midlands moniker, these are proud Portland pig bits, and very good they were too, despite the ominous health warning ‘only recommended for people with strong, healthy teeth’ on the back of the bag (now I don't remember seeing any piggies on the isle...suspicious - TE). They also must have had some magical effect on our inebriation levels, as we had suddenly perked up enough to start considering the range of top shelf whiskys as a nightcap, helped no doubt by Europe slowly beginning to claw back their second day deficit at the Masters, which I was following on the TV in the corner.

I picked the Auchentoschan American Wood, an easy-going lowland whisky I first tried on the overnight sleeper to Edinburgh, which knocked me out ‘til well past Carlisle. The Ewing was very excited to see Black Cow vodka - the world’s only vodka made from milk – which is also made just down the road in West Dorset. Not only did her choice, a double on the rocks, cause a stir amongst the regulars, but the barman also gave it to her at the bargain price of £2.50 as ‘it isn’t really that popular’ (sheer madness - TE). Which pretty much made up for the golf, and the fact we still had the windy walk back to the mainland to contemplate....

Green Shutters - 1x Mountgay Eclipse and Coke, 1x pint DBC pilsner; I x Shakey’s scratchings; 1x double Auchentoshan American Oak; 1x double Black Cow Vodka £14.30 (I mean, Oh. My. God. - TE)
Sticky carpet rating: 8.5 A solid score thanks to pool, darts, fruit machines, and a decent collection of charity tins - including 80s favourite Sooty, which the Ewing was particularly excited to see (collecting for the RNIB no less, well done Sooty - TE). In fact, we probably spent more money donating to these than on our beverages.
Overall rating: 9. Great pub with great staff and a lively atmosphere and somewhere I’d like to go back for a quiet daytime pint (the Ewing would like to go back to finish the vodka). I’m taking a point off for the beer selection being a little lacking, but the cheap top shelf spirits goes someway to make up for it.

Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Pies and Subs in Camberwell

Camberwell, the leafy (ish) corner of South East London that’s the birthplace of the Carrot ('I invented it in Camberwell and it's shaped like a carrot') Boris Karloff, and Florence of Machine fame, as well as being the home of the curious concrete submarine-shaped block that acts as a vent shaft for a subterranean boiler room providing heating to the adjacent housing estates.

Most of this quirky behemoth was sadly surrounded by hoardings trumpeting a ‘visionary new development’ in the ‘Oval Quarter’ (no, me neither) when we visited. Although the area is experiencing the same insidious creep of gentrification that can be seen across most of London, it looks as though this concrete curiosity is set to remain pumping out power, after the chimneys were extended by four metres each last year. Which is more than can be said for all the council residents that have been shipped out of the area to accommodate the controversial new development.

One recent addition to the area that has been much better received is Theo’s Pizzeria, a traditional wood-fired pizza restaurant just off Camberwell Church Street, offering Italianate delights such as aubergine parmagiana, cheesy garlic focaccia and potato and mozzarella croquettes to the lucky residents of SE5.

The succinct beer list runs from the standard Moretti to the local Orbit Nico kolsh lager (brewed up the road in Walworth) and Kernel Table Beer (brewed up the road in Bermondsey). Despite Stealth’s reservations about its low ABV (but that's piss-weak) we got through a couple of frosty jugs of the latter, the perfect choice for a warm mid-afternoon when there was plenty more still to be done after our lunch.

From a strong list of starters and side – the aforementioned croquettes and the pizza fritta looked particularly dreamy - we chose a little snack of Mortadella, pickled green chillies and crescentine, a kind of puffy pillow of fried dough, sprinkled with salt to nibble on waiting for our pizzas. 

Add some of their magnificent homemeade red chilli sauce, and you’ve got yourself pretty much the most perfect starter - despite the Ewing’s misgivings about having to attempt to ‘share’ with Stealth, who is still famous for taking two chocolates (one for now and one for later) every time you offer her the selection box (it always ends badly - TE).

The pizzas served at Theo’s are Neapolitan-style pies with a sourdough base; fired very quickly at very hot temperatures in their wood-fired oven that – in an ideal world - leaves them with a puffy and blistered crust and a perfectly melted middle.

Now I’m a pizza whore, and would eat almost anything involving dough and cheese, but Neapolitan pizzas are my favourite of all. They are also probably the hardest to get right, as the brief cooking time means that if the pizza isn’t fired at a hot enough temperature, or has too many toppings, you are left with a pallid, doughy crust and a soggy bottom covered in a puddle of lukewarm tomato soup.

Thankfully, they had clearly stoked their fires and my pie, the Camberwell scotch bonnet n’duja with sopressata sausage, was gooey and charred in all the right places. Topping wise this was also the perfect combo – hot sausage, oozy cheese and just the right amount of tomato, before being strewn with a handful of fresh basil that smelt like the final, glorious throes of summer as it arrived at our table.

Stealth was very happy with her scotch bonnet pie with added mushrooms (her favourite foodstuff, alongside the gala pie), while the Ewing pimped the anchovy and olive combo with some mozzarella and extra wood-fire roasted aubergine.

Pizzas start at £5.50 for a Marinara, topping out at a tenner for fancy stuff like a pizza bianca with sausage and wild broccoli - which is still approximately half the cost of a Dominos while giving you approximately twice as much pleasure, especially if you slather it in some more of their red chilli sauce.

Despite missing the summer cut-off point - owing the fact it was two days after the vernal equinox, and now officially autumn - I still couldn’t resist the pistachio ice cream which was magnificent - far better than much of the ice cream I’ve eaten in Italy and definitely in LAB G league. South London really does have a strong line up of frozen nut-based desserts at the moment, now happily joined by some great pizza - the perfect accompaniments to the eponymous carrot.

Theo's  Pizzeria Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Thursday, 6 October 2016

Wycombe Bites: Breakfast at Bluegrass

After the brief terror of nearly losing one of my favourite local restaurants, I've decided to show some love for some of the excellent food and drink currently coming out of my adopted home town - a big change from the days when I'd get the train to meet my friends as a teenager, and we'd spend our afternoons eating cheeseburgers and smoking cigarettes at McDonalds (inside, using little foil ashtrays, those were the days) followed by sharing an illicit bottle of vodka down on the Rye.

I've written favourably about Bluegrass before, the pudding are particularly good, but a little (long) while ago they also started doing breakfast. With pancakes, smoked meat, bottomless filter coffee and tea (served in huge enamel tea pots) and just ten minutes walk from our front door, it's needless to say the Ewing and I were soon regular visitors. 

For a whole egg-avoider, pancakes are a perfect breakfast foodstuff, and the ones they serve at Bluegrass are my favourite fluffy american type. That said, the ones served here are a little flatter than normal, being more like a the scotch pancakes that we used to bung in the toaster and spread with butter and jam when I was growing up.

That said, anything covered with crispy bacon - they serve proper streaky stuff here - banana, pecans and maple syrup is always going to be pretty good. They are also commendably generous with the toppings and serve shots of maple syrup for extra lubrication.

Bacon and banana is my favourite of the combos I've tried, but the fresh blueberry and blueberry jam, served here with some phallic bacon and plenty of syrup, is also good. More unusual, and worth a try, is the apple and sausage stack - with bramley apple sauce, cinnamon sugar and pecans - which is also good value at six quid. 

For a mere fiver you can get your pancakes with chocolate chips, caramel sauce and ice cream. It's a majestic-looking plate of food that's just a little too much  refined sugar at such an early hour; although, judging from the amount of people ordering it when I've visited, plenty disagree.

Even better than the pancakes are the Bluegrass breakfast plates. The smokehouse plate- texas toast, baked eggs, bacon, sausages, pit beans, smoked mushrooms, grilled tomato and homemade hash brown - is my favourite, while the Ultimate Plate also adds a pile of pulled pork and a short stack of pancakes.

As their flat top grill is in use cooking the pancakes and texas toast, the eggs come oven-baked in little enamel dishes. Apparently, they're pretty good with soldiers of the aforementioned toast for dipping; I've never tried them, preferring to swap my l'oeuf for an extra, oniony hash brown, which are some of the best I've eaten.

So, while the only smoking going on is the meat - which is all still  slow smoked over hardwood on site - and the illicit vodka has been replaced by a menu of bourbons and whisky (which you can mix with Welch's grape juice, for a real American breakfast vibe), I can certainly think of worse ways to while away a morning in Wycombe.

Wednesday, 28 September 2016

A taste of home: E Pelliccis

There’s a kind of special moment you sometimes get when you’re on holiday -  maybe it’s when you’re walking through a fug of incense in a backstreet market; or squeezed in a thrumming side-street bar as the evening kicks off; or sitting in sleepy town square, watching locals smoking and playing chess – and the magic suddenly strikes you and you think if only it was like this at home.

Of course being on holiday also means you conveniently forget that haggling over your weekly Tesco’s shop, or being pinned up against the wall by the hordes at your local when all you really wanted was a quiet after-work pint, would seem completely insufferable when you’re back in the real world. And who really remembers how to play chess, anyway.

Well, I had my own moment, on the Bethnal Green Road of all exotic locations, just a few weeks ago. A moment that’s so perfect that you feel like you’re in a book and you don’t ever want the story to ever end; and all before breakfast.

Well, more accurately, for breakfast. But while I was waiting for my fry up and drinking my way through the second cup of thick, malty tea I was already thinking – as I idly read the advert for a commemorative birthday party for the Kray twins that was stuck in the window  - that as moment’s come, they don’t get much better than this. And better still, I was at home.

Well, more accurately, on the Bethnal Green Road. At E Pelliccis, the celebrated café that has been in the same family since it was built in 1900 and who have fed everyone from the aforementioned Krays (who often ran their ‘business’ from here) to Henry Cooper to most of the cast of EastEnders. The bright yellow Vitrolite frontage and Art Deco-style marquetry panelled interior remain untouched - leading to the building being Grade II listed a decade ago which means that, like my favourite caff, the Regency Café in Pimlico, when you step through the door it’s hard to tell if it’s 2016 or 1960.

We, of course, were here for the full English (which come sans beans as standard, so remember to add them in if you’re a legume fan) mine without egg but with a wonderful puck of homemade bubble, a pan-fried potato and veg cake with the vegetal funk from the leftover boiled cabbage and broccoli. One of the few things, the others being sausage sandwiches and corned beef hash, that I prefer with brown sauce. The rest of it was pretty spot on, too, especially the fried mushrooms, which were as fine as any I’ve had.

Here the sauce is in squeezy bottles, the marge thickly spread on your toast 'do you want another slice, gels?’, and you can get a fried slice with a fried egg on it; surely the key evidence in the case against having to show the calorie counts on restaurant menus.

It's also worth trying to leave room for a slice of the bread pudding for afters, you can always get it to takeaway. (Also checkout Percy Ingle bakery a couple of doors down, the only place apart from Greg’s, I’ve ever seen my beloved Tottenham cake).

Even better than the food is the service, which revolves around non-stop banter (in the traditional sense, when it meant being both quick-witted and good-natured) from both the customers and the staff. My favourite part was the conversation that started up as we went to pay.  ‘Gels, I’ve been reading that Lady Chatterley's Lover. She might have been all prim and proper but - I don’t mean to be rude, gels - she still let him give her one’.

It’s an wonderful microcosm of London life and a slice of our city that makes me feel very proud; proving you don't need fancy foreign climes, just a good cup of splosh served with a friendly smile, to get that little magical shiver down your spine. Yours for 70p, but the feeling's priceless.

E. Pellicci Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Thursday, 22 September 2016

Sunday service: Blacklock

While it might be our national dish, the roast dinner is notoriously tricky to get right.  For a start, everyone knows that Mum’s make the roast, and each family has its own particular foibles and quirks. When I was growing up Sunday dinner (served at 6 o’clock) always came with cauliflower cheese and roast parsnips, and yorkies (my Dad made the best), were only ever served with beef. The Ewing’s Mum served both mash and roasties with the meat - a double carb concept I still struggle to get my head around.

Which all conspired to make going to Soho’s Blacklock on a Sunday, despite their reputation for the best roasts in town, a gamble. Not only that, during the rest of the week they specialise in chops and, despite my solidly English credentials, I think I might actually prefer gnawing a chop to a Sunday dinner. Yeah, I know.

Anyway, as it was mid-September and we were eagerly anticipating a change in the weather – before, of course, we knew a freak heatwave was bringing the hottest temperatures of the year - the Ewing managed to grab the very last table. This was a victory I feared would be pyrrhic when we saw the weather forecast and began to question the wisdom of sitting in a dark basement eating platters of red meat and potatoes swamped in rich gravy.

I may as well spoil the surprise by saying now, even if the only remaining table was in Hades and I had to cross the River Styx to get to that first bloody mary, I would make the same choice again every time. As it was, we were shown to one of the best tables in the house - positioned below the skylights in the pavement - although anywhere seemed like a good table when we saw the hordes of people that had already been turned away by five past twelve.

The heat did result in one concession, swapping a bloody mary for a gin and juice as I was craving something more refreshing - which also, I convinced myself, came under the vague guise of healthiness (yes, somebody went off piste, this was not what we agreed before hand - TE). The Ewing’s BM was exemplary, but an abundance of the most pleasingly shaped ice cubes in the glass left her wanting a bit more of the beefy (a preface of things to come) beverage.

You can order spit shanks of bone marrow covered in a snow of freshly grated horseradish, or giant wood-grilled scallops with bacon and peas – as the guys on the table next to us did, to our jealous looks – but we went straight for the ‘all in’, a platter piled up with all three roast meats, gravy and all the trimmings (something we had agreed a week before our visit after studying the menu together - TE). As it’s hard to break a habit, I also chose the cauli cheese, more for nostalgia’s sake as even I wasn’t worrying that we wouldn’t have enough food to keep us going.

This was a roast any mother would have been proud of, in fact, it was almost equal to my own mothers, right down to the cubes of not-quite-crackled crackling (one thing she was never very good at), which were completely delicious nevertheless. There was even a random pork rib on top of our mountain of food, which reminded me of being allowed to gnaw at the bones in the kitchen as a treat if I helped carve the meat.

The pork looked a little pallid against the blush red meat, but was deceptively juicy and made a fine start  to the meal (I usually follow the ‘best til last’ method, while the Ewing goes in head first -  (in case I die in the process, fancy dying before you ate your favourite thing - TE)). Round two saw the lamb, both our favourite of all the meats, with a transcendental dish of cauliflower cheese, with a four cheese sauce, and a rainbow display of carrots. Finally I moved on to the roast beef, which was good but not quite as good as the lamb, which I ate with a very fine Yorkshire pudding, perfect green beans and a lick of good horseradish sauce.

While I’m probably the only person in the world who isn’t really bothered about roasties, these were very good - although with the vast amounts I had already eaten it meant I still lived up to my nick name of ‘Amy One Potato’, which, as you can see above, did make me feel rather sad. 

Stealthily (or probably when I was probably messing around with filters on Instagram), the Ewing managed her trio of spuds plus my remaining pair, meaning we only ended up leaving the gnawed rib bone. Believe me, I did try to eat that too.

One thing neither of us wanted to do without was pudding, here you get one choice, white chocolate cheesecake with seasonal fruit, which made ordering easy. Served up at the table from a large earthenware dish, this was a wonderful cheesecake that had possibly the most rustic buttery biscuit base I have encountered - you can see the errant rubbly chunks that sprinkled over the top. The accompanying berries were both sweet and tart and I particularly enjoyed that they were served in a Shippam's potted meat dish.

Clearly, we were both in love; with the food, our waiter - who had the Ewing in stitches while dishing out our desert  (oh the staff were dreamy, such good fun - TE) - and the fact they bought toothpicks, for our chops, with the the bill - which, at £80 including tip, was not too considerable at all for all the food and drink we had consumed.

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

Still there's always room for a little more... and it’s at this point I would like to apologise to my wife, for a whole litany of misdemeanours, but on this occasion for making her, after our gluttonous display, walk around the corner to Gelupo in an attempt to fulfil my ice cream-in-every-blog-post-during-the-summer. 

Not only that, I also made her eat our double scoop of bonet - with chocolate and caramel - and ricotta and sour cherry pretty much single-handedly, only stepping in to help her finish the last mouthful of cone. From the couple of licks I had, the ice cream remains peerless as ever. One of the only things that my mother (whose best attempts at pudding when I was growing up mostly stretched to ‘yogurt or fruit’) can’t quite yet compete with. Still, she does buy me tubs of ‘Oh My Apple Pie’ Ben and Jerry's when I visit, which is quite alright with me.

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