Thursday, 27 April 2017

Coach Class

Many moons ago, before this blog was even a bun in the oven, the Hand and Flowers - Tom Kerridge’s lauded two Michelin Star gastropub – was about as close to a local as the Ewing and I had.  The perfect spot for some lovely grub and a pint of local ale, and somewhere we still haven't really managed to replace.

This may seem like a fanciful story for two impoverished library workers, especially if you consider it currently has a six month plus long waiting list for dinner and mains on the ala carte menu starting at thirty quid. But back in the good old days, when the pub had ‘just the one’ star, they offered a two course set lunch for a tenner - including their fabulous bread and famed whitebait amouse bouche - with pudding for an extra £3.50. Plus you could easily get a table on a Monday (the library workers’ traditional day off) at a few days’ notice.

Sadly, for someone who remembers having three courses, pints of beer and cheeseboard and still getting out for £50 for two, those days are long gone. Although, at thirty quid for three courses, the set lunch remains decent value. And they still serve the whitebait.

But, while the H&F might not now be the place for an impromptu late lunch, Chef Kerridge’s march on Marlow continues with The Coach, his second pub on the same road - complete with all day opening hours, small plate ‘pub grub’ menu and, best of all for someone with a last minute bonus afternoon off work,  no reservations.

Being a solo diner, I slotted instantly in to a spare barstool, complete with view of the open kitchen, and was soon nursing a glass of house red and a (pristine) copy of the Guardian, offered from a wide selection of papers by the charming bar staff. 

It might be an unfortunate symptom of the modern age, but there’s nothing worse than feeling at a loose end when eating on your own so I was pleased to have the tragi-comic diversion of the day’s current affairs, interspersed with tragi-comic updates from the Magical Stealth on WhatsApp, to keep me amused until my food arrived.

The menu is essential ‘pub tapas’,  with the size of dishes being roughly proportionate to their (not inconsequential) price tag. As I was on my own, and so mercifully spared from sharing, I pretty much stuck to a classic ‘starter, main, pud’ order of proceedings, which began mushroom risotto ‘Claude Bosi’.

Whether you think that this is an improvement on the classic Italian version would depend on how wedded you are to your carbs, but I did find myself strangely impressed by the tiny uniform pieces of perfectly cooked mushroom, bound in a cheesy sauce and topped with a dreft of Parmesan like fresh snow on the top of Monte Bianco.

My next plate was a little closer to home; pigeon from the West Wycombe Estate (a far more appetising prospect than High Wycombe High Street), served with trompettes and pearl barley. I often judge a good dish by its gravy, and this was some of the best. Shimmery and shiny with a deep meatiness that complimented the blushing pigeon and nutty grains.

Alongside were the famed pomme boulangeres, or bakers taters in English. Arriving in their own saucepan, topped with a disc of crisp potato shards that had been brushed with another slick of glossy meat juices,  I doubt you could spend a better £2.50 anywhere.

Although ordered from the ‘non-meat’ section of the menu (with a ‘contains meat' caveat in brackets after) make no mistake, this one's for the carnivores. As soon as the tuber lid was lifted I was greeted by a heap of dark and sticky braised meat on top of further layers of slow cooked potato; a satisfying sight and they tasted even better.

Pud was a warm chocolate and peanut tart with a ball of salted caramel ice cream perched in a chocolate tuile basket on top. Like everything that had come before, this was a superlative plate of food - the friable pastry giving way to a perfectly oozy, nutty fondant centre. If I hadn't been half-cut on house red I'd have felt guilty that my chocoholic wife was down the road at work, and not sat at the bar sharing it with me.

While I'm still a little wistful for those halcyon days enjoying long boozy lunches up the road, the Coach is an more than able enthusiastic younger sibling with the added advantage of not having to plan your visit weeks in advance. Add in the warm and friendly service and (not too eye-watering) pricing and it might be time to pull up a stool and get comfy; there's a new local in town.

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Chick'n'sours - Reclux

There’s not many places I’m excited enough to write about twice – the ever wonderful Hawksmoor and Maltby Street Market/Bermondsey Beer Mile being notable exceptions – but when Carl Clarke announced that a second branch of his Kingsland Road fried chicken shop, Chick'n'Sours, was coming to Covent Garden and they would be bringing their famous whole Fry Sundays, I knew what I had to do.

As I pontificated at length after my first visit to the original branch, their Original Fry – served sprinkled with seaweed ‘crack’, as if it wasn’t moreish enough – is still amongst the best fried chicken I have eaten; and I know my crispy poultry. Not to mention the sticky Szechuan aubergine, so good we ordered it twice, and their Thai-inspired pickled watermelon salad that I’ve never been able to quite recreate at home.

I also like to think of myself as a bit of connoisseur when it comes to a sour cocktail  - the conceit making up the second part of their name – after drinking a few in my time. The Ewing, who shakes up the most awesome Sidecars, has even more experience in this niche field and judged the Rye'n'Black sour with red and pear as good – although missing that acerbic killer punch - while the original Chick'n'Club, with apple freeze dried berries, was even better.

Both made great appetite sharpeners, especially when imbibed along to fantastic soundtrack of New Order, Deacon Blue and the Communards.

While a starter seemed entirely superfluous, knowing how much food was already on its way, I couldn’t pass up one of the newest additions to the menu; Mexi-nese nachos – a hybrid dish of Chengdu chicken and bacon (an intensely spiced, meaty ragu), green chillies and kimchi cheese sauce, A glorious combination of salty, crunchy and cheesy, peppered with bursts of bright chilli heat.

While my experiences with home deep fat frying are limited after I got rid of our fryer -  to the unbridled delight of the Ewing, who was happy to sample the finished goods but was less enamoured with the grease and dust and trails of stale oil from another abandoned experiment – I know the difficulties of getting that crisp carapace while heating the insides right through. A lesson bitterly learnt after a batch of arancini with a black crust and a stubbornly solid cheesy centre.

So quite how the chefs manage to batter and fry a whole chicken so the coating is crisp and golden, the breast is still tender and those tricky little crevices where the legs and wings meet the body are fully cooked through is quite the mystery. 

But manage it they do, and the result is this (quickly demolished) burnished beauty, ordered K Pop style with the addition of extra squiggles of gochujang mayo and chilli vinegar zig-zagged in a Jackson Pollock-esque way across the top. Even in giant form, I maintain this is as fine as fried chicken gets; poultry perfection that rivals even the classic roast for the best Sunday dinner.

The hot and sour Korean sauces served with the chook were perfectly tempered by our choice soothing sides. The dripping fries, ordered with an awesome St Agur creamy blue cheese dip, were rated by the Ewing as McDonald's scale good (a ringing endorsement). 

While a dish of crisp green slaw, made with shredded sugar snaps in a tangy dressing and topped with black sesame seeds, was exceptionally good. In fact, with the nachos and chicken that had come before it, it’s a testament to its deliciousness that this was still possibly the best thing I ate all afternoon.

As Einstein (probably didn’t) say ‘insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results’. In this case I’m quite happy to confirm I’m completely lucid and the chicken (and everything else) is just as good at the Seven Dials branch – possibly even better as it’s far easier to get to for those on the west side. Although I’ve already persuaded the Ewing there’s no harm in returning to properly test the hypothesis.

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

Ending up in King's Cross

A fact that has been well documented on this blog is my enduring love of pizza. Thick, thin, frozen, coal-fired, I love it's easy-going informality and it's a passion that's endured since my Mum used to buy the cheap cheese and tomato pizzas the size of a saucer from Bejam. The perfect accompaniment for a marathon evening of Gladiators and Blind Date on a Saturday night.

Fast forward a few years and that still sounds like my idea of a perfect weekend. And, although they can't fulfil my nostalgic love for prime time game shows, Pizza Union - with branches in King's Cross and Shoreditch - fling some of the cheapest pies in town.

Part of the reason for the rock bottom prices is the slick self-service premise - think old school canteen but with trays of olives and roasted fava beans instead of the dried out Turkey Drummers and jam doughnuts of of my youth.

After selecting your drinks from the cabinet at the entrance you move along to the main counter to order and pay, picking up your trendy snacks and pots of extra Parmesan, chilli sauce and garlic mayo on the way. Find a stool at a communal bench, then it's a short wait until your buzzer goes off and you can collect your trays of freshly wood-fired pizza and side salads. Not the venue for a romantic dinner a deux perhaps, but perfect for a quick pit stop.

At 12.50 a bottle, the vino tinto - chosen from the very short wine list; one white, one red, one fizz - was about as good as you'd expect it to be. Which was to say not very, but at that price who's complaining. Icy cold Peroni and San Pellegrino are also available, as well as tepid thimbles of London tap.

Pizza union's pies are Roman style; aka the crisp-based ones you can pick up in a slice and fold into your mouth a la Sex and the City or Do the Right Thing, depending where you get your cultural references from. Whatever way you look at it, at a generous 12 inches and with prices starting at a bargain basement £3.95 for a margherita, you can't really go wrong.

Our first pick was the Romana; wild broccoli, mozzarella, speck and Gorgonzola (instead of goats cheese). Smoky and salty with the bitter tang of the greens, this was a fine way to spend six fifty of anyone's money. Consider splashing out another 50 pence for a pot of the aforementioned (Nando-esque) chilli sauce for your crusts.

We also ordered a fungi (this time with added goats cheese) which perfectly showcased why people who don't like mushrooms are Wrong. A mixed salad with olives, peppers and Parmesan - served in a utilitarian metal mixing bowl proved another tasty way to up our veg intake.

As good as the pizza was, there was something I was even more excited about; the calzone ring stuffed with Nutella and mascarpone cheese. While I've seen these on the menu before (Pizza Pilgrims even do a customisable one at their new Shoreditch branch) I've never been quite up to the challenge after eating a hefty Neapolitan pie. Thankfully, their Northern brethren are crisper and lighter meaning plenty of room for pud.

As ever celebrating excess when it comes to desserts, the Ewing also decided to order two tubs of Oddono's ice cream - in pistachio and salted caramel flavours. A good call as it turns out as both were very fine indeed; even more so when eased out their tubs and into the centre of the molten calzone ring.

Pizza ice cream, cheap wine and hanging around Kings Cross late on a Saturday - it really was like the last twenty years hadn't happened. And to capitalise on that 90's vibe, and prove we've still got it, the evening finished with the Dandy Warhols at the Roundhouse. Just a casual, casual easy thing. Is it? It is for me.

Thursday, 6 April 2017

Wycombe bites: The Works

In anticipation of our extended holiday to the Southern hemisphere - to meet the latest addition to the clan and celebrate an auspicious birthday – I’ve given up booze and sugary stuff and pretty much anything worth eating or drinking. It’s boring, and joyless, and I’ve already found myself having a two-pint Guinness lunch ‘cos it’s St Patrick’s Day’ and eating a steak and kidney pudding for breakfast ‘just because’.

Thankfully, as the salad-eating regime has been less than half-hearted on occasion, there's still been plenty of opportunities to support the Works, the latest indie offering on Wycombe’s high street. With its selection of - temporarily verboten - ice creams, cookies, pancakes, waffles and milkshakes, and their lovely staff who bring a little extra sweetness to the proceedings.

It’s not all kid’s stuff, with a drinks menu that includes beers such  as the peerless Beavertown Gamma Ray and Meantime, boozy shakes, cider, wine and champagne. The prosecco comes on tap and can be ordered with a variety of different fruity adornments or even with their homemade sorbet for a decidedly grown-up slushie. Perfect for taking pictures of people taking pictures for Instagram.

After visiting their original branch in Aylesbury for a deliciously ostentatious golden Ferrero Rocher ice cream sundae the Christmas before last, their most recent festive offerings included a turkey dinner, complete with stuffing, bacon and cranberry sauce, stuffed inside a Belgian waffle. As much as I love the combination of sweet and savoury, I would have preferred the advertised gravy rather than a slick of maple syrup across the top. Otherwise, top marks.

Other fillings I’ve enjoyed, which can be served on either a freshly made waffle or crepe, include chorizo and roasted pepper; classic mozzarella, mushroom and spinach; and a dissected hot dog with beef chilli, jalapenos and onions (undocumented as I was sitting next to my boss while I was eating it, trying to avoid the inevitable grease stains down my shirt and salad in my teeth).

As good as the savoury offering are, and most are pretty good, it’s impossible to ignore the fridge filled with a cornucopia of different coloured gelato as you walk in. Available as individual scoops, with a variety of customisable toppings, or bring your appetite (or a a friend) and try one of their sundaes, which can all also be ordered on top of a waffle of crepe.

While there are a myriad of different combinations, including banoffee pie, hot apple caramel crumble and eton mess, my favourites are choc-based. Although a minor criticism is the low melting point of some of the flavours I’ve tried, notably the chocolate which seems to liquefy before you’ve stuck your spoon in the sundae glass. A small trade-off for such light and creamy gelato, I suppose, but dig-in quick (not a problem if you're with the Ewing) if you don’t want to drink your desert.

One of the ‘firmer’ flavours - and now a firm favourite after trying (several) helpings when they had their recent pound a scoop promotion – is the Peanutella, peanut ice cream swirled with a ribbon of melted chocolate and whole nuts. This is genuinely one of the best ice creams I have eaten and is particularly good in the Nutty Professor sundae; with pistachio and chocolate ice creams, toffee sauce and extra nuts; or, even better, served as an affogato with a double espresso.

Not only is it torturous that I frequently have to walk past, I now see on social media that their range of gelato has been joined by a salted peanut butter chocolate pretzel flavour and they have a new Easter Egg Hunt sundae on waffle - topped with gelato, whipped cream, Malteser bunnies, Creme Eggs and a 'surprise'. Maybe there's time for one last blowout before I have to fit into my beach wear...

Thursday, 30 March 2017

Oxford: Pints and Pizza Tour

Last year Chiltern Railways announced that, for the first time in 100 years, a new route between a major British city (Oxford) and the capital was going to be opening. Meaning the city of dreaming spires was now a little over half an hour away from home. 

For most people this would have probably meant planning a nice trip to the Ashmolean, or the botanical gardens, or punting on the River Cherwell, but the one thing I was most excited about was all the fabulous pubs we could now visit and still be able to stagger safely home. And, after having recent cravings for a 'proper' pizza, the Ewing promised me I could combine my two great loves (after her of course) on the #pintsandpizzatour.

Our first stop was supposed to be Beerd, the second branch of the 'craft pub' off-shoot from West Country brewers Bath Ales. But, after pretty much jogging all the way from the station in my excitement, this sign was the first thing I saw.

Upon enquiring inside - on the hopeful chance the poster was out of date - the bar staff reported the closure of the kitchen was linked with St Austell's takeover of Bath Ales, with the company currently reviewing if the pub will continue to be managed or be passed over to a tenant landlord. While skipping food for an early beer was tempting, there were still several stops to get through and I needed some ballast to stop the ship from keeling.

Thankfully we still had enough strength for a stroll around the corner, just in time our next port of call to open its doors for the day. The White Rabbit is an independent pub serving real ales and pizza just off Gloucester Green. And, with a kitchen headed by an Italian and fresh ingredients imported from the homeland each week, I had high hopes for our first lunch.

To drink, the Ewing tried a new XT brew the Jester experimental the first using the CF125 hop, to be renamed something catchier if the beer takes off. I went classic with an Oxford Scholar, a traditional English mid-strength bitter from the nearby Shotover Brewery. Both were decent enough (especially after several weeks of not drinking), although the enjoyment was slightly marred by the 'floaties' of yeast in the bottom of both our glasses.

My margarita, with a swirl of chilli oil cleverly disguised in a amaretto bottle to make us appear like hardened drinkers to the table next door, was perfect simplicity. The crust was a little more robust than a classic Neapolitan pizza, meaning you could cut a wedge and fold it up NYC style, and as I ate it I imagined I was Kevin MaCallister, on Christmas Eve. Which is a very good thing.

The Ewing went fancy with a Lumberjack - a pizza bianca with mozzarella, porcini mushrooms, truffle cream, speck & parsley. While I was initially a little dubious the smoky ham and funky mushrooms riffed nicely with the milky mozzarella and puffy base. Dare I say, it might have been even nicer than mine.

Next we went straight back to the old school with a trip to the White Horse on the High Street. The building dates back to the 16th century and has become more recently famous for appearing in episodes of Morse, Lewis and Endeavour. Eagle-eyed fans might even have noticed the photos of John Hancock on the wall during a recent episode of the latter show. Very meta.

Regular beers include Brakespeare’s Oxford Gold and White Horse’s Wayland Smithy. I tried the latter while then Ewing went for another Shotover Brewing co. beer, this time their session bitter, Oxford Prospect (the last pint in the cask, much to the chap behind hers dismay). Two ales I’m sure Endeavour - or his creator, and beer fan, the late Colin Dexter - would have been very happy sipping while ruminating over the latest body.

I’m not sure our detective would have been quite as pleased to be cheek to jowl with the throng of (very entertaining) tourists from Oklahoma drinking mulled wine – it appears hot wine is big business in Oxford, even in March. And yes, I am aware of the irony of my comments, being a day-tripper myself. Although, thankfully for the Ewing’s sake, I seem to be getting less curmudgeonly as time goes by.

Another of Oxford’s plethora of famed hostelries is the Eagle and Child (A.K.A the Bird and Baby) where The Inklings - a  1930's writers' group with members including Tolkien and C.S Lewis - who would meet to discuss unfinished manuscripts in the 'Rabbit Room' at the rear. 

Now it’s a Nicholson’s pub, and while it retains its original frontage, the interior – once you walk past the atmospheric and cosy alcoves by the entrance -  has more of an identikit feel, not helped by the narrow proportions of the building and lack of natural light.

The selection of beers is sound though, with four ales on offer including the serviceable Nicholson’s Pale. I chose the, so-so, Hopback Winter Lightening, being as it was geographically the closest and a beer that I have enjoyed in its famous summer incarnation. Better was the Ewing’s choice of a pint of Dave from Great Heck in North Yorks. A very decent toasty dark ale that she kindly let me share while we plotted our further adventures thanks to a postcard we had picked up at the White Horse.

Our penultimate stop was the Rickety Press, in a sunny corner of Jericho. The pub is part of the Dodo group (along with the Rusty Bicycle on the Magdalen Road), which, certainly from the selection on offer when we visited, seems to be tied to Arkell's beers. A fairly uninspiring looking range (I had already told the Ewing to stay away from the Old Rosie cider), although I was pretty pleased with my pint of 3B Bitter, with a tight creamy head not often seen south of the Watford Gap.

Already, less than a third of the way into the new year, a contender for Best Thing I have eaten in 2017 is the Rickety Press’ n’duja pizza. Not so much for the chunks of fiery Calabrian sausage, delicious as they were, but for the tangy, chewy sourdough base speckled with charred spots from its ferocious firing. I didn’t even need the home made dipping sauce for my crusts, and I love a dipping sauce for my crusts.

The topping on the pizza bianca here - speck, rocket, gorgonzola and pickled pears - was slightly less successful than at our previous stop. Although the magic of blue cheese on a pizza (or on anything) should never be underestimated, especially when paired with the same gloriously chewy base.

And, as even we struggled to finish our second round of pies, it meant I got to enjoy the leftovers (thanks to the Ewing for carefully carrying the box upright all the way home) later that evening with a, judicious, splash of truffle oil like our pie at the White Rabbit - the best of both worlds.

After all those pints and pizza it was time for a little pudding and what better than a G&D ice cream, from their Davis branch on Little Clarendon Street. My waffle cone - filled with a special Rolo flavour, designed for Valentine's Day (I didn't share) was the perfect accompaniment to a stroll across to the Denys Wilkinson Building. The beautiful Brutalist home to Oxford's Nuclear and particle physics departments. 

As we slowly swayed our satiated way back to the station, I'll leave you with the, rather apt, words of Max Beerbohm; 'that old bell, presage of a train, had just sounded through Oxford Station; and the undergraduates who were waiting there, gay figures in tweed or flannels, moved to the margin of the platform and gazed idly up the line'.