Sunday, 17 August 2014

Pizza (and Proms) - Homeslice, Covent Garden

While I’m not a huge one for life-affirming mantras,  or ‘inspiring’ memes on Instagram, one lesson – taught to me by Madonna at the end of the Human Nature video – I like to live by is ‘absolutely no regrets’.

While not normally a hard thing to abide – this lapsed Catholic very much lacks the guilt gene – I had to struggle to remember it upon waking after our evening with the Pet Shop Boys at the Late Night Proms. Suddenly all those double G&Ts to slake our thirst, followed by a boozy late night roam through St James and past Buck House to wave at Liz, followed by a few more cans of cold Six Point IPA we found back at Stealth’s house seemed a very bad idea indeed…

Auspiciously, just at the moment I feared I might never be able to sit upright with my eyes open simultaneously, the ice cream chimes could be heard across the Newington Estate.  Moments later the magical Stealth had raced outside to grab a brace of 99s, and even deigned to let the Ewing and I eat them in bed.

With sugar safely on board – rarely has whipped fat and air seemed more welcomed - things didn’t seem quite as hopeless; suddenly the lure of more carbs and some hair of the dog began to look very appealing indeed. A cold shower and a cup of tea later and we were back out pounding the – very, very hot and sticky - tarmac of London Town in search of further sustenance.

In view of Stealth having a date to keep in Soho later that evening, we hit the centre of town, conveniently forgetting the horrors of the Big Smoke in the midst of a sultry summer that we had experienced just the previous evening. Thankfully, as with our noodle exploits the night before, braving the hordes was worth it as I had one goal in mind: securing beer and pizza.

Our destination was Homeslice, hidden away in the bright and busy warren of Neal’s Yard – alongside the eponymous cheese and natural remedy purveyors - tucked between Shorts Gardens and Monmouth Street.

As with nearby neighbours, Pizza Pilgrims, Homeslice started out with a mobile oven, this time situated in an East London brewery. After a couple of nomadic years they found a permanent home in the West, and rather a nice one it is;  wooden benches and exposed pipes and brickwork are all present and correct, alongside the jewel in the crown, the wood fired pizza oven. It’s cool, fun and (very) loud.

Orders are taken on an ipad, obviously, and we start with frosty tankards of Camden Helles, served on tap alongside glasses of Prosecco, and pretty good value for a restaurant in Covent Garden (or pretty much anywhere in Lahndan now days) at £4.50 a pop.

Rambling aside alert: While it may start to show my age, I remember my aunt buying me four and a half pound pints at the Rock Garden, just around the corner, when I was an impoverished student. This was over fifteen years ago, now, when the average pint cost £1.97, and I was at once both in awe of the cost and faintly cheated that tasted more of fizzy regret than sparkling ambrosia.

There are also over-sized bottles of wine available in the full trio of colours; drink what you like and pay by every centimetre glugged, the remaining vino measured out with an old fashioned wooden ruler by your waiter on requesting the bill.

Unsurprisingly Pizzas are the main draw; in fact the only draw. There are no sides, starters or puds to muddy the waters, just pies, whole or by the slice, from a regularly changing list chalked up on a board by the entrance.

Choices are different without being too outré. Expect to see combos like scallops with peanut, haggis and Ogleshield cheese or oxtail and horseradish alongside more familiar favourites such as the classic Caprese or aubergines and courgettes with artichoke. All slices – usually three choices – are £4, all pies £20. If you think that’s a lot of dough to drop on some dough, check the diameter – these babies are the size of a BMX wheel.

We went for a half and half split between a pizza Bianca of white anchovies, chard and Berkswell and a red pie topped with pulled pork, radish, pea shoots and mint pesto.

Everything was spot on; the crust both blistered and charred and floppy and chewy in all the right places and the toppings artfully placed to fill every bite without being sparse. Fortuitously, in the intrests of having to share, I preferred the fish and greens, with the salty sheep's cheese and tang of lemon while the Ewing liked the  porky side, especially the crunch of radish and the sprightly mint pesto. Meanwhile Stealth just got stuck into the beer while trying to snaffle all the nice crusty bits when our backs were turned.

Homeslice on Urbanspoon

Of course, I couldn't omit a mention of the wonderful PSB, debuting their Man From the Future, a musical tribute to the great Alan Turing, at the Roal Albert Hall. A fabulous performance of a bittersweet story; we even bumped in to the girls from the future, too...

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

'Noodle Bar', Leicester Square (and some Unbirthday Cake)

There are three hundred and sixty-four days when you might get un-birthday presents, and only one for birthday presents, you know. Lewis Carroll

A couple of weeks ago, as a precursor to Stealth's unbirthday trip to the Proms, I decided to treat her for dinner at a cheap, unlicensed and un-air-conditioned dive in the heart of tacky tourist central. No one can say I don’t push the boat out.

There was a brief moment, when I was trying to, literally, push my way from Piccadilly Circus to Leicester Square, when the mercury was still hitting 30 at six in the evening and most of London had decided to descend upon Theatreland, where I questioned my own sanity on suggesting such an idea.

But, despite the crowds and the heat and inauspicious frontage of the place – just look for the sign that says ‘noodles’ – I knew that at the back, past the trays of luminous sweet and sour and chow mein and fug of steaming dumplings, that Stealth’s spicy noodle urge would soon be sated.

Typically, despite the address and link to Google maps being provided, Stealth had decided to trust her own sense of direction and was waiting at the other noodle bar opposite the other entrance of Leicester Square tube. Something that was comical when recounted later, but didn’t seem quite as amusing as we were sublimating on the pavement.

Troops successfully reconvened, we were hustled by the staff waiting on the pavement outside to the cramped seating area at the back and presented with, helpfully illustrated, laminated menus. There's plenty to chose from, but ignore all the standard glop that sits in trays under heat lamps, the handmade noodles are the real draw here.

These noodles come in two varieties, la mian, the thin, hand pulled variety, and Dao Xiao Mian, which are shaved from a big ball of dough, wrapped round a stick, straight into the steaming stockpot. Both these types can be ordered in soup, dry style or fried, and then topped with various meat, fish and vegetables.

From the little ledge along the side of the restaurant, where we were perched, we had a prime seat to one of the best shows in town, watching enthralled at the lengths of oil dough being expertly twisted and tossed into the air until they split into tiny, glistening threads that were dispatched straight into the bubbling broth.

Minutes later and our steaming bowls were in front of us; hot and sour beef with la mian for Stealth, Dan Dan noodles with la mian for the Ewing and crispy pork chop with fried Dao Xiao for me.
The la mian were springy and toothsome, just like a good noodle should be. Stealth’s soup was pleasingly piquant, full of strips of tender meat and greens while the Ewing’s Dan Dan rendition had a flavoursome broth topped with plenty of porky, nutty sauce.

My platter - literally, a vast metal tray- was piled with crisp cabbage and onions and chunks of juicy pork chop and studded throughout with comforting noodle chunks that were chewy and stodgy, in the best possible way.

Noodle mains are decently priced, between £ 6-£7.50, and the portions are gargantuan. For the adventurous there is also a huge menu of side dishes that includes various preparations of tripe, liver and tongue alongside cucumber served with pig’s ears, and stomach of duck in red oil.

We also ordered a plate of steamed dumplings stuffed with pork and Chines chives – superfluous, but rather forced on us by our brusque, but amusing waiter – which were very good.  The handmade wrappers encasing the centre were delicate and light with the inside being fragrantly allium-spiked and beautifully juicy.

It isn’t licenced, they don’t offer tap water, service is comically curt and pushy and there is barely room to swing the noodles, let alone anything else, but Zhengzhong Lanzhou Lamian Noodle Bar has a curious charm as well as damn fine noodles.

Lanzhou on Urbanspoon
To round off the un-birthday treat, our final stop was intended to be the Golden Gate Desert House on Shaftsbury Avenue but time dictated we had to Go West (thanks to Stealth’s boss) to the Royal Albert Hall. No matter, as we had the chance to go back the following evening before returning home, although sadly sans Stealth this time.

Again, it’s not a fancy gaff, although the elaborate range of cakes and gateaux’s in the window at the front and the chilled cabinet inside are properly swanky. The Ewing went for the chocolate mousse layered sponge, complete with strawberry frog topper who was sadly blinded in an unfortunate accident on the trip home – while I picked the impressive pandan cake.

I love the flavour of pandan, and this, with the layers of lurid green jelly, fluffy sponge and coconut cream, was like a rather exotic children’s tea party. The Ewing pronounced her cake as ‘light as air’ although you’ll have to take her word for it as not much remained for me to corroborate.

The bright purple taro mousse cake also looked particularly intriguing and is top of the list for a return visit, They also stock a small range of pork, cheese, spring onion or sausage stuffed savoury buns, lotus cakes and moon cakes as well as dramatic, many layered, cream and fruit topped celebration cakes for all occasions.

Golden Gate Dessert House on Urbanspoon

Still sweltering in the sultry City heat wave our last stop was Boba Jam, two doors down from the Desert House. Here they serve a small variety of South east Asian/Chinese deserts – mostly involving strange flavoured fruit, beans and seeds – and a selection of savoury snacks, but the biggest lure is the range of Boba tea and fruit jelly drinks.

We played it safe with the Hong Kong style – a strong black tea with condensed milk – served with black tapioca pearls and lashings of ice. Everyone knows that you can’t have an un-birthday without tea and cake, and this was the perfect finale. Here’s to Stealth’s next 363 un-special days.

Boba Jam on Urbanspoon

Saturday, 9 August 2014

Summer Cake with Apricots, Almonds and Raspberries

A bit of late summer foraging always puts me in mind of the words of the wonderful Seamus Heaney:

Blackberry Picking
Late August, given heavy rain and sun
For a full week, the blackberries would ripen.
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
Among others, red, green, hard as a knot.
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
Like thickened wine: summer's blood was in it
Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for
Picking. Then red ones inked up and that hunger
Sent us out with milk cans, pea tins, jam-pots
Where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots.
Round hayfields, cornfields and potato-drills
We trekked and picked until the cans were full
Until the tinkling bottom had been covered
With green ones, and on top big dark blobs burned
Like a plate of eyes. Our hands were peppered
With thorn pricks, our palms sticky as Bluebeard's.
We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre.
But when the bath was filled we found a fur,
A rat-grey fungus, glutting on our cache.
The juice was stinking too. Once off the bush
The fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour.
I always felt like crying. It wasn't fair
That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.
Each year I hoped they'd keep, knew they would not.

Luckily for me there’s a huge blackberry bush at the end of my front garden, providing handfuls of snatched berries for breakfast on route to work with further pickings gathered on the way home to be instantly frozen or eaten with yogurt or cream.

Other berries, particularly fragile raspberries and tayberries, are more troublesome. Each year I always vow only to pick enough to eat that day; not only are they so fragile but they also are the most expensive of the soft fruits at our local PYO, and its heart-breaking to have to throw away any fuzzy or hopelessly squashed ones.

Of course each year is the same and the allure of the little scarlet fruits, gently sun warmed, is too much to resist. We always end up carting home at least a couple of large punnets to gently taunt me every time I open the fridge door.

This year I was determined to be more organised, as well as some of Dan Lepard’s oat bran muffins, studded with both blueberries and raspberries - far less virtuous than they sound and very, very easy – I also picked out this Summer cake from Nigel Slater, for Stealth’s annual, seemingly never-ending, unbirthday bash.

I’m afraid I can’t take credit for the making of this cake, it was one of the wonderful Ewing’s creations, but I can take full credit for demolishing several large slices. The ground almonds and soft fruit keep it particularly moist, but a little dollop of cream or ice cream alongside wouldn't go amiss either…

Summer Cake with Raspberries and Apricots 
Adapted from Nigel Slater's Tender volume II

Serves 8-10 
175g butter 
175g golden caster sugar 
200g ripe apricots (or peaches or plums)
2 large eggs 
175g self-raising flour 
100g ground almonds 
1 tsp grated orange zest 
a few drops of vanilla extract 
150g raspberries (or any other soft berries)

Line the base of a 20cm, loose-bottomed cake tin with baking paper. Set the oven at 170C
Cream the butter and sugar together in a food mixer until pale and fluffy. 
Halve, stone and roughly chop the apricots. 
Beat the eggs lightly then add, a little at a time, to the creamed butter and sugar. If there is any sign of curdling, stir in a tablespoon of the flour.
Mix the flour and almonds together and fold in slowly to the creamed buter/sugar/eggs.
Add the orange zest and vanilla, and once they are incorporated gently stir in the chopped apricots and raspberries.
Scrape the mixture into the cake tin and bake for 1 hour and 10 minutes. 
Test with a skewer – if it comes out relatively clean, then the cake is done. 
Leave the cake to cool for 10 minutes or so in the tin, run a palette knife around the edge, then slide out on to a plate.
Decorate with a sprinkling of icing sugar or granulated sugar and serve with cream or ice cream and more berries.

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Village Mangal, Amersham

Amersham, the start of the commuter belt, a town thrumming with the gentle bubble of suburban life and the joys (and despair) of nothing in particular. Amersham, the end of the Metropolitan Line, celebrated by John Betjemen in Metro-land (given the marvellous working title, The Joys of Urban Living), who proclaimed of life beyond the town; ‘In those wet fields the railway didn't pay/The Metro stops at Amersham today.’

Knowing the town as I do (my second student job was here, at the foot of the hill linking the old and new towns) you would probably forgive my scepticism that the Village Mangal would be anything more than a high day and holiday sort of place, serving humdrum food -with sparklers in every other pudding to celebrate yet another birthday – washed down with copious amounts of wine and the odd family disagreement.

In the spirit of trying new things I had arranged a dinner date with The Ewing and Maz, the Witness (our wedding, not Jehovah's), not hoping for much, but assuring ourselves there would be lots of juicy gossip to make up for any shortcomings in the food. So it was with a degree of happy surprise that the grub turned out to be as plentiful and tasty as the conversations.

The start of our meal, however, was a little inauspicious. Arriving straight after work to a near empty restaurant meant we bore the initial brunt of the waiters overzealous attention. While they were all very friendly, there is a limit of how many times you need the cruet set rearranging by a procession of different staff, especially if you’re waiting to hear the denouement of a particularly exciting story.

On the food front things started very promisingly with a gratis selection of meze, including a  plate of charred onions dressed with a pleasingly sour mixture of pomegranate and sumac served alongside pillowy Turkish bread and a duo of dips; spicy tomato and olive oil, and herb and yoghurt.

Next was a lamacun, a pizza-cum-flatbread, topped with ground lamb and spices, that came served with a pile of sumac -flecked pickles and salad.  A wholly unnecessary stop gap of a dish that has become something of a must- order when I see it in honour of the magical Stealth, who rates them as one of her favourite foods.

Not only was it superlative, it was also £2.50, hardly Home Counties prices. In fact the whole menu was eminently reasonable, with kebabs and grills, with rice and salad, starting at £7.00 and a two course weekday lunch is also available for bargain hunters.

Being ladies with somewhat more expensive tastes the Ewing agreed (using some gentle persuasion) to share the Mangal grill with me; a huge pile of grilled meat and rice served with yet more salad and pickles, £24 all in.

The meat, a selection of lamb ribs, lamb chops, lamb shish, chicken shish and kofte was fantastic; heavily seasoned with salt and spices and smoky from the chargrill. It was only later, when I walked to the back of the restaurant, that I saw how the authentic flavour had been achieved – although the thick fug of smoke and heat should have probably have given the game away sooner.

Tucked away, before you reach the kitchen, was a large open grill where, a rather unfortunate, given the stifling weather, man sat sentry over an array of skewers of different meats, vegetables and fish. His labours were worth it because it was all - especially the lamb ribs, that I am still fantasising over a fortnight later – fabulous.

Maz chose another humdinger, with the Hünkar Beğendi, or Sultan’s Delight. This was a plate of lamb, stewed lightly in a tomato sauce, on a bed of impossibly glorious aubergine. There are few things as wonderful in life as a aubergine cooked just right (often a tricky thing), and this was silky, oily and smoky, with no hint of the spongy, bland bitterness that can often blight it.

While it looked for a while as if we would be needing a doggy bag, the Ewing diligently persevered until just a heap of bones and sticky fingers remained. There was even enough room for a thick, strong coffee and a few morsels of traditional Turkish sweetmeats. The perfect end to a 'delightful' evening.

Thursday, 31 July 2014

Love and War, London Style

One of the many things I love about being English is the juxtaposition. Take our famed obsession with the changeable climate. I don't suppose many people in Oman or Quito or Corfu greet their colleagues with a detailed meteorological breakdown of the probability of rain between now and lunchtime. Don't like the weather? Wait five minutes.

It's the same reason I remain so entranced by London; the great melting pot where a five minute walk that might take you through grimy estates, sprawling parks, cobbled mews and fancy high rises. And couple of weeks ago I got to see it in its full, fickle glory; from conception to death in one short afternoon (obviously not literally, for a start I'm pretty sure we still have obscenity laws although it's sometimes hard to tell walking through an aforementioned park in the summer...). 

Fear not though, if you thought I was about to get all serious on you, there was plenty ice cream and beer involved in my adventures, too.

The day started off in one of my favourite places in the world, the Southbank (it actually started in my office, but that's far from one of my favourite places, although it does have the benefits of aircon). Despite the noise and the crowds and, on occasion, the shameless tourist-focused cynicism, the sight of a Waterloo sunset or walking over the Thames and seeing to the London Eye on one bank and the Houses of Parliament on the other never gets old.

On this particular afternoon I had two goals; to secure myself a lobster roll at the Festival of Love before a preview visit to the reopening of the Imperial War Museum. And while it did seem rather sad, in both senses, to be going to the Festival of Love solo, I reminded my self of Woody Allen's famous words onanism, and reasoned I'd also save myself the expense if having to spring for lunch for the Ewing as well. 

Bob's Lobster van found - look for the VW splitty with the retractable roof under the Hungerford Bridge - and lobster ordered, I snagged a deckchair tucked in the shade behind the van and kicked things off with a (not quite cold enough) can of lager while waiting for my roll to be toasted and assembled to order.

While they also peddle prosecco on tap, beer was the ideal choice with the mercury still steadily rising, and a Hobo fitted the bill perfectly with its easy going honey and hay aroma and gentle carbonation (read: it was fizzy and alcoholic, it hit the spot).

A few minutes later and I was acquainted with the main man; a buttery brioche roll, toasted and stuffed with copious amounts of lobster meat and finished with a sprinkling of secret herbs and spices.

It was a triumph, quite one of the best things I have crammed in my mouth recently (and there's been a few...). The lobster was poached gently to stay soft and buttery, the brioche superlative - I'm still imagining what it would be like heaped full of crispy smoked bacon - and the secret spiced stuff on top pleasingly Old Bay-ish without being overpowering.

Yes it wasn't cheap - 14 bucks and without even a pickle spear or a few crisps on the side - but it was beautiful. I was already in love.

Bob's Lobster on Urbanspoon

Next up was a wonder around the Festival of Love, which is celebrating the Same Sex Couple Act  with a programme of free events based around the seven different types of love. Differently-themed weekends, performances, poetry, talks and pop-ups including the Bloody Oyster double decker bus and the Look Mum No Handss cafe, jostle for space along the river. 

I particularly enjoyed walking through the Temple of Agape a 'celebrating the power of love over hate', and walking through the Museum of Broken Relationships, for when love goes bad. on the weekend 30-31st August you can even particpate in the Big Wedding Weekend where all couples, gay or straight, young or old, are invited to marry or renew their vows on the stage of the iconic Royal Festival Hall. Nothing like a good old mass matrimonial knees up.

To finish, a visit to the Snog bus was due. Gargantuan crowds - unsurprising, given the heat - moved pretty swiftly and soon I was in possession of my medium Snog, original vanilla flavorful, served with passion fruit, raspberries and, lest it should seem too healthy, crumbed chocolate brownie chunks.

I eschewed sitting on the top deck in favour of enjoy my snog under Waterloo bridge. Not quite as racy as it sounds, although a tub of fro-yo, brownies and berries is probably about as exciting as you could hope for  while still fully clothed (despite the fearsome heat I didn't want to scare the horses...) on a weekday lunchtime.

I've got a soft spot for frozen yoghurt, and this went down a treat in the heat. I especially liked the lip-puckering combo of classic fro-yo mixed with zingy passion fruit - which I convinced myself was contributing towards my five-a-day - and with an added dollop of protein and calcium for good measure.  For traditionalists, or those not wanting to part with the best part of a fiver for a tub there are classic Mr Whippys and orange lollies available from a several ice cream vans along the way.

Snog Pure Frozen Yogurt on Urbanspoon

Fortified and full of amore, I left the Southbank and headed down the Waterloo Road to Lambeth for a rather more sobering afternoon of reflection and commemoration. As a representative of the WW1 Centenary Partnership, I had been lucky enough to be invited to a preview of the reopening of the Imperial War Museum in Southwark.

With its new glass atrium, built by Foster and Partners, the former site of the notorious Bedlam hospital looks more magnificent and sobering than ever.  A V-1 Doodlebug and a Harrier Jet join the iconic Spitfire and Sopwith Camel suspended in the skies above, while other exhibits on land include a Reuters Land Rover damaged in an attack in Gaza, a bombed out shell of a car recovered from a Baghdad market  and a menacing, Czech built, T-34 tank.

The Holocaust galleries remain as powerful as ever, while the surrounding rooms house a variety of exhibits and stories from conflicts of the last century that range from the Maggie puppet featured on Spitting Image, to imploded glass bottles and tiles found at Hiroshima, to a twisted window frame from the World Trade Centre.

The primary reason for my visit was to see newly configured Great War galleries, featuring over 1,300 objects and including an overhauled trench experience that attempts to evoke the difficult, and often brutally short, life of a soldier fighting on the Front.

The display runs on two sides of a u-shape, with the war – including the war at sea and campaigns in the Middle East, Africa, Gallipoli and the Western Front represented on the outside wall, and the home front – including Germany’s – on the inside. Here you can find out what life was like at home during the First World War in Britain and its former Empire. Discovering the reasons why men signed up for service and the contributions women made to keep the troops fed and fighting.

Reopen fully as of the 18th July, the exhibition, like the museum itself, is a poignant commemoration to the brutality and senselessness of conflict, asking us to question the ‘three Cs’: Cause, Course and Consequence. It also leaves you with the hope that love really can conquer all.