Friday, 12 February 2016

More Buildings and a Camden Bird

So I came back to Camden; the scent of poppers and jerk chicken; the bobbing sea of electric-dyed hair and shiny piercings that glint in the sunlight reflected off the Regent’s canal. It’s almost enough to make me feel nostalgic for the mornings spent pouring over bootlegged records and cones of chips and afternoons drinking lager in sticky-carpeted pubs. *almost*.

On this occasion there was little time for reminiscing as we were heading for brunch at Bird – the third branch of the fried chicken and doughnut mini-chain - before schlepping out to the far North west corner of the borough for the second stop on the Brutaltour.

Even better, they were having a delayed soft launch on our visit, with 50% off food for the weekend. Although our eagerness to eat chicken and drink beer, coupled with a delay in opening their doors, meant we had half an hour to browse the market and reminisce about our misspent youth. Although in my heyday it was more about Cyberdog and Nirvana T-shirts as opposed to the posh coffee and nitrogen ice cream I enjoyed on my last visit.

Anyway, back to brunch, and Bird stands out on the Kentish Town Road with its bright orange crest of a sign. Inside is kitted out with all the exposed brick and strip lighting you could wish for, although the tunes were resolutely old school, the highlight being Ja Rule and J Lo’s ‘I’m Real’ a song that not only does The Ewing know all the words to, but had also invented a little dance as she sang along. The best entertainment while waiting for our food.

The hipster-ness is cranked up to eleven with a beer menu that offers PBR, the sweet and fizzy American lager from Milwaukee that has found favour with the new beard and plaid generation who work in urban lofts rather than sawmills. It may have all the complexity of a pint of R Whites but, like the lemonade, when served ice cold it makes a great foil to spice and grease.

The waffles served with my fried chicken were delicately pale, like my Irish ancestors (I, sadly, inherited the pink gene), and I feared undercooked clagginess. Thankfully, my suspicions were unalloyed as the ‘doneness’ was spot on; crisp without and fluffy within. They also paired very well with the crisp-crusted chicken and side of smoky maple syrup - a winning combo if you like that sweet and savoury thing.

In comparison the star of the show, the fried chicken, was somewhat lacklustre, which was a shame as the whole concept hinges on it. It wasn’t bad, per se, but at seven quid for a drumstick and a small chunk of breast, it didn’t compare to a recent visit to Chick N Sours and was probably on par with the fast-food variety box I may have drunkenly consumed last weekend. Wings fared better and I liked the Nashville extra hot sauce, even if it lacked the powerful chilli punch the name suggested.

Sides wise, we both hungrily fought over the cheesy korean cheese fries with house kewpie mayo and gochujang glaze - which were excellent, although conservatively portioned – but the pickled cucumber was a bit of a let-down, featuring a few wan slices of fruit in an unremarkable dressing that made me want to visit Silk Road where they know how to smack a cucumber up.

While the Ewing was disappointed they didn’t run the full gamut of deserts offered at their other branches – including the retro banana split with squirty cream – I was more than happy they had freshly baked doughnuts, and even more so when I saw one of the daily flavours was cinnamon sugar. For me this was the highlight of brunch; a fluffy orb of warm dough, generously stuffed with vanilla ice cream and decorated with plenty of strawberry sauce and the aforementioned aerosol cream.

The bill came in at thirty quid, which included tip and a seventeen pound soft opening discount for the food. Decent value with the money off, but had we paid in full I think the phrase cheap at half the price would have been more apt. Still, not a bad option if you’re in the area and with a fried chicken and blue collar beer craving.  You can also grab fresh doughnuts to takeaway, available fresh daily, from 11 until sold out.

After lunch we made the second stop on my Brutalist architecture adventure that took us over Primrose Hill (it's windy there, but the view is so nice) to the magnificent Alexandra and Ainsworth Estate.

After first seeing the estate featured in the final episode of Prime Suspect I've wanted to visit Rowley Way and, even on a steel grey February afternoon, it didn't disappoint. Like it or loathe it this is an estate with real character, from the grey and green concrete to the bright blue railings. There's also a huge number of palm trees and tropical plants on the balconies, giving a whole new meaning to urban jungle.

This distinguished development was designed in 1968 by Neave Brown of Camden Council's Architects Department as an attempt to eschew the high rises that were cropping up across the capital and an answer to London's social housing shortage. Completed in 1978 the estate is constructed from site-cast, unpainted reinforced concrete, so beloved of the brutalists, and in 1994 became the first post-war council housing estate to be Grade II listed.

Instead of building up into the skies, he favoured a Ziggurat design of successively receding split level maisonettes, each with their own private outdoor area. This design also means the higher block directly adjacent to the railway line acts as a noise barrier that blocks the noise of the trains.

A must see for any modernists, and if you fancy seeing what's behind the frosted glass, look out for Open House London in September where selected flats on the A&A Estate can often be visited. Find out more about the place - including a chance to watch 'One Below the Queen: Rowley Way Speaks for Itself', a film featuring the estate's residents - link.

Thursday, 4 February 2016

Wild Beer at Jessop House, Cheletenham

I like beer, a fact both my both wallet and waistband would attest to, which makes Tryanuary - a campaign encouraging people to try new independent breweries, beers, bars and bottle shops, and a riposte to the far more sobering Dry January - my kind of challenge. (yes, I'm aware it's February already, blame it on all the beer I've been sampling)

And where better to start then at Cheltenham's Jessop House; a stately Georgian townhouse that houses the first Wild Beer - the innovative Somerset brewers, renowned for their experiments with grains, grapes, and pretty much anything else they can get their hands on - bar and restaurant. 

While Wild Beer may not have been new to me - I first encountered their beverages here while on a trip to Somerset a couple of years ago and have lost several nights subsequently drinking them at my local  - a pub focusing on their drinks was. And although I thought I was already a consummate consumer of their brews, a look at the wonders on their beer board soon put me to rights. 

Alongside their own beers (all keg) there are a few other gems on offer that on our visit included a fruity duo of Hawkshead Raspberry Sour and Magic Rock's Grapefruit Highwire, The latter of which we found an animated customer mixing together with Wild Beer's Bibble (an everyday pale ale) to make a craft turbo shandy while talking loudly about jazz clubs. Mmm, nice. (He was good fun!- TE)

We started with Hula, based on a keg of Sourdough (made with a Hobbs House bakery yeast starter) that 'went mental'. And I'm glad it did, as this was lip-puckering libation with notes of apple, lemon, vinegar and bread. It's certainly a bold and unusual beer, and probably not for everyone, but at 3.8% it made a light and zingy beginning.

What I really like about Wild Beer, as their name might suggest, is their passion for going off piste. We explored their untamed side by sampling three more of their sour/wild ales; Firstly was Zintuki, a blend of Ninkansi (their celebratory ale made with apple juice and champagne yeast) and Somerset Wild, which was good but didn't quite live up to the sum of its parts.

There followed Squashed Grape, a beer made using grape must from a nearby vineyard alongside wild apple yeast, making for dashing purple drink with a pleasant fruity funk and background mustiness I wasn't so keen on. And then the Modus Wine, a beer so secret one of it's descriptions is listed as simply '????'. I'll leave the tasting notes as a mystery to be discovered (and nothing to do with the fact it came after an evening of imbibing and I can't really remember....)

I do, however remember the last beer, the Millionaire salted caramel stout. I wasn't so much of a fan of their Yankee Sandwich (a peanut butter stout that's no longer available) but this struck a perfect bittersweet balance and clocked in at an eminently reasonable 4.7%.

After staggering back up the Bath Road to our hotel for the night, we both woke up feeling far more chipper than we ought to. And hungry; very hungry. The perfect opportunity, then to head back to Jessop House to try their set lunch menu - at a very competitively priced £14 for three courses - alongside another libation or two.

To drink, we went with the beer pairing, two third pint glasses per person, available with the set lunch for just 2.50 extra. Normally, as we had already drunk five of the twelve Wild Beers on the board the night before, I would have been keen to chose my own beer selection, less there was any duplication. But new year, new you and all that and I left it in the lap of the gods, or the bar staff, to decide.

First out were two brews we hadn't yet sampled; the Einsteinium lager for me - complex, as you might expect from these guys, but still retaining the easy-drinking nature of a good lager - and the Somerset Wild for the Ewing, a bolder, sharper beer, based on yeasts found in the orchards of the South West. It might look just like cloudy apple juice but it delivers a devilish punch

My calamari - in a change from the advertised squid with salt and preserved lemon - had been slow braised in a tomato sauce with a tangle of sweet onions and dill. Deceptively simple yet delicious, I've already been thinking about creating this at home; maybe with a few black olives and a good glug of pastis.

The Ewing's potted mackerel with Somerset Wild jelly (to match the beer, or should that be the otherway around) - served in an admirably decent portion along with a green salad - had a nice smokiness if a touch too much gelatine 'bounce' for my taste.

I actually preferred the crisp baguette served with this to my own wholemeal bloomer, and thankfully The Ewing felt the opposite, so we started a little bread exchange; two roundels for half a slice being the going rate.

The stars aligned again (or possibly it was a side affect of all the beer) with our next match, with two more untried libations. Madness, my choice, is their interpretation of a West Coast IPA. The label describes it as hops + hops + hops and it doesn't disappoint. The Ewing's pairing was Wild Gose Chase, a gooseberry infused saison that I've enjoyed before, but lacks a little of the fresh fruit zing the description promises.

The slab of pork belly, while lacking in a carapace of crackle, was still a fine piece of meat. Cooked until the fat had rendered and the flesh shredded apart at the hint of pressure from a fork, served on a bed of crushed roots and roasted leek, this was a winter warmer executed with a deft touch.

The fish was a creamy, smoky, thermonuclear dish of joy which proved a timely heat source for the Ewing, as the cold new year breeze blowing through the sash windows started to bite (I actually discovered that my boots had leaked and I had wet feet, and we all know that once your feet are wet and cold, you're cold  - TE). It could have accommodated a little cheese in the mash (few things wouldn't accommodate a little cheese) and maybe a few peas (greens and salad are available as a side order) but was a fine example of its kind.

After enjoying a cracking visit-and-a-half up to this point, we ordered our puddings, a schooner of Millionare for me and a double espresso for the Ewing and sat back and waited; and waited and waited some more... 

Finally, after a faintly farcical passage of play where everybody else around us (or the two other occupied tables) had been served their food and an attempt had been made to re-clear our table, despite having not actually having received our dessert, it transpired our order had been misplaced. And the doughnuts had to be cooked from scratch.

Ordinarily this turn of events might have pushed my mild-mannered Englishness to the limit.  But apologies were profuse and after a gratis glass of Amouse Bouche  - again one of their suggestions, and the penultimate beer on the board that I hadn't tried (don't worry, I picked up a bottle of the final untried beer, Brett Brett to take home and drink later) - was offered, along with another coffee for the Ewing, we were happy to hang on a little longer. It also helped that their was beer related literature to read and the Millionaire was going down very nicely.

Sadly the Shnoodlepip doughnuts didn't prove to up to the delay. While the concept was good - they are based on their Shnoodlepip beer that contains pink peppercorns, passionfruit and hibiscous - the oddly sized dough balls were dry and chewy, making me long for the tonka bean doughnuts at Drygate in Glasgow, one of my favourite puddings of last year.

The Ewing's Beeramisu fared better, being a clever Wild Beer re-imagining of the Italian classic. Sponge fingers were infused with their Wildebeest crushed espresso stout, layered with vanilla marscapone and topped with chocolate and cacao nibs. Rich, tangy and understated this pudding/drink hybrid marked a fitting start to Tryanuary and a great ending to a memorable (for mostly the right reasons) lunch.

Tuesday, 26 January 2016

A Brutalist birthday and some brunch

So, the blog is five. In previous years this auspicious date has slipped by rather quietly - apart from the first anniversary, when there was some jazzy birthday cake ice cream, stuck with a solitary candle - but this year I wanted to mark the passing of time with a new challenge. It had to be cheap (more on that in a later blog), involve adventure, and, most importantly, keep my interest piqued while not driving the Ewing insane for a whole twelve months (that would be good - TE).

So I thought of some combinations of my favourite things, ruled most of them out for being highly impractical (and possibly illegal) and finally settled upon my love of brutalism, The Big Smoke and maps; three things that have been cunningly combined together by Blue Crow Media in their brutalsit map of London.

 Fifty-two weeks to see the fifty-four  landmarks listed (plus possibly a few bonus balls found outside the Big Smoke) to learn a few new things, see some hitherto unexplored corners of the capital and shake a few foundations. Of course not literally, given the construction of some of these behemoths.

Brutalism, deriving from the French for 'raw concrete', is an architectural movement that rose from the ruins, literally, of post-war Europe. Renowned for its uncompromising ruggedness that often puts form above function, it's characterised by the austere expanses of concrete its name suggests, with a focus on practicality that will divide a dinner party at its mere mention. 

Needless to say, it floats my boat, although clearly, like all things, it has it's flaws, and not all to do with buildings themselves. Although I'm sure there will be time to pontificate on the finer points during the coming months. I didn't study art and architecture at uni for nothing (err, well I did, but that's another story).

I started the challenge gently with the rather modest Hendon Hall Court. Designed by Owen Luder - whose partnership was behind the iconic Trinity Car Park in Gateshead and Portmouth's Tricorn Centre; both now both sadly (or happily, depending on your stance) reduced to rubble - this small block of private flats is a rather more modest proposition.

Built between 1961 - 1966, its repetitive and angular geometry, most striking at either end of the block, marks it out as a brutalist build, albeit one that blends nicely into this leafy suburb. White paint softens the bleakness of the concrete - although an old photo I found on Flickr (in black and white making it hard to tell) seems to show bare concrete and roughcast, suggesting this wasn't always the case.

Although we didn't go inside, The Ewing had a quick swizz  around the entrance and through the front doors, where plinths of concrete impressively rise up from the outside staircase and seamlessly pass through panes of glass into the hallway.

Google also throws up a nice bit of property porn, showing some deceptively spacious, if slightly oddly configured flats. If you're interested, a three bedroom penthouse is currently going for £690,000 smackers, although it does boast a 30ft reception room that leads on to a large roof terrace. Two beds start at £400,000, which considering the careering London property market doesn't seem all that unreasonable.

Tramping around outside Barnet in the freezing depths of winter, all while attempting to look surreptitious, is hungry work. As it was Sunday, we decided dim sum was in order and Wing Tai, part of the pagoda-like complex that includes the Wing Yip supermarket and is impossible to miss from the Edgware Road, was just a few minutes drive away.

It's a big space but there was already a waiting list a little after twelve. and plenty of Chinese families, which is always a good thing. Or maybe not when they gave us the the dim sum menu to fill in, along with the little Argos biro, and the only discernible thing to a non-chinese speaker was the cost...

Thankfully they also have a laminated pictorial menu and we had soon made our choice of seven dishes; I had pointed out that eight was an auspicious number, but the Ewing had also pointed out most of our choices were deep fried in some form and if we were going to spend the next year traipsing around the city, we could probably do without the extra ballast. 

Food was decent, if lacking the finesse of some of the better joints; likely as some of it comes frozen from the supermarket next door. There are some unusual choices, though, including prawn, beef and crunchy water chestnut dumplings that we tried, and a pork and peanut number, that we didn't.

Doughnut cheung fun were, as always, fun; with a good contrast between the slimy rice dough outside and the puffy fried dough within. While the fried beancurd rolls, despite having the unfortunate appearance of a roadside casualty, were perfectly tasty.

We also had pork buns, The Ewing's favourite, that were small but perfectly fomed; good spicy thai-style baby octopus; and glutinous rice, wrapped in lotus leaves and studded with dried mushrooms, shrimp and sausage. To finish were deep fried custard buns, which for my money beat most doughnuts with a much better filling to dough ratio and a lovely crisp caramel carapace. 

At fifteen pounds a head, all in and including chinese tea and tip (although be aware they ask for a separate gratuity if you pay by card) it's a decent shout if you don't want to schlep into central London, and there's always the advantage of visiting the adjacent supermarket after to stock up on chili sauce and strange snacks.

All in all it ended up being a day of discovering new things; not only did I start my architectural tour and find about the Luder school - at least beyond Get Carter and the Catford shopping centre - I also found out what the plural of uterus was. Luckily for the Ewing, this was one experience I wasn't keen to explore further. 

Wing Tai Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Monday, 18 January 2016

Chick 'n Sours, somewhere out East....

Born in the Badlands of Brent and raised in the rolling Chilterns, I've always been, as Neil sang, a West End Girl. So when Carl Clarke - of Disco Bistro fame - opened a chicken shop on the Kingsland Road it pitted my love of fried poultry with my inherent dislike for convoluted trips across London with TFL.

For a while I held out, but after enduring a Twitter feed full of sticky wings and Weetabix soft serve, coupled with the plaintive pleas from The Ewing (who rates fried chicken on a par with me and only just behind chocolate and the cat), we roped in Stealth and Regina, an East End Girl, for brunch.

The name suggests, they've got a keen eye for the cocktails too, with the specialty being sour-style libations served in half pint pots. I stuck with the house sour, which featured gin; lemon; raspberry and chilli vinegar; and freeze dried raspberry, while the rest of the table honed in on the regularly changing guest list with the stand out being a a bourbon based mango and balsamic number.

The Szechuan aubergine - cubed and tempura battered before being tossed in a soy and miso glaze - was about the best thing you could do to an eggplant. So good we ordered two portions, and not just because The Ewing has vowed never to split food with Stealth after the unfortunate 'sharing' platter incident at the Doghouse in Kennington before I even started writing this blog.

We also shared a side of watermelon with peanuts and coriander and chilli and fish sauce; all things that probably shouldn't work when mixed together with chunks of fruit, but strangely did.

I had been eagerly waiting to try the House Fry drumstick and thigh, served with 'seaweed crack' and more chunks of pickled watermelon. After vicariously cyber-consuming this countless times on social media, I only hoped the reality could live up to my fowl-based fantasies. Thankfully it was even tastier; knocking Colonel Sanders grizzled offerings into a cocked bargain bucket.

A crisp shell of seasoned batter gave way to chicken pieces I would have described as being on steroids (both because of their size and my predilection for lazy cliches), if I didn't already know were from free range organic birds raised on Pilton Grange in Yorkshire. And whilst the seaweed seasoning had the appearance of the contents of an errant ashtray it certainly deserved its class A moniker, being a full on umami-bomb. 

The Guest Fry on this visit was spicy satay; a House Fry drumstick and thigh smothered in a creamy peanut sauce, crunchy red onion and a thatch of coriander and thai basil. A serious plate of food which, again, managed to tame all the big bold flavours into a harmonious whole.

Stealth isn't a fan of a bone - not in her chicken, anyway ( know how she recoils at erotic puns - TE) - but thankfully the brunch bun was there to satiate her every need. A behemoth of fried thigh, avocado, fried egg, bacon, chilli slaw, hot sauce and gochujang mayonnaise, clamped in a shiny brioche bun that elicited gasps both when it arrived at the table and then as Stealth manfully struggled to finish it. 

Thumbs up, too for the packet of Huggies baby wipes that arrived with it and were much needed. I probably should have used one myself, being as the above photo is rendered in a soft glow focus thanks to the greasy fingers on my phone camera lens.

Yes, fried chicken restaurants in the Capital might be as ubiquitous as conceded Spurs goals, but far more fun. And with excellent cocktails, superlative poultry and a soft serve menu I must return to sample (hopefully before the matcha, banana and sesame flavour is replaced) it's worth braving the 243 to Wood Green for.

Chick 'n Sours Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato