Monday, 20 March 2017

Love buns in Brum

Last month saw the Ewing and I celebrate 5 years of marriage (or 1.25, if you consider we were married on a leap day). As love is all about compromise, she graciously entertained the idea of visiting Coventry Cathedral on a windswept February afternoon, while I tried not to snore too loudly through Sean Lock at the Birmingham Apollo.

One thing we could both readily agree on was a surfeit of food and drink to celebrate. So after cocktails the night before at the charming 40 St Paul’s – a bracing Gilpin’s dirty martini and a dangerously smooth G and T made with Blackwoods 60, a 60% gin that is, purportedly, currently the strongest available (also try the smoked and salted gin if you see it) – we elected to chase the cobwebs away with a brunch trip to Ken Ho in Birmingham’s Chinatown.

Being faced with platters of sticky buns and bamboo baskets of steaming hot dumplings always seems to do the trick if I’m feeling in a parlous state, not to mention the free facial you get as they arrive at the table. Throw in some crispy roast meat for protein, a good dash of soy to top up the sodium levels and stir fried greens for iron and you’ve got the perfect hangover cure.

It’s a cliché to say it, but it’s always a good sign when you're the only white faces in the house; even more so when a steady queue was already building behind us at 12:30 on a grey Wednesday. And, after assuring our waiter that we were actually there for the dim sum menu, rather than the Chinglish classics (as much as I love a deep-fried prawn ball), we got started with a pot of jasmine tea and some wonderfully short and flaky roast pork puffs. I love the trashiness of good Chinese baking, and here the balance between the lard-enriched pastry and sweet filling was perfectly balanced. Like a superior, Asian-inspired Greg’s sausage roll.

A classic test of the kitchen is har gau - those plump, shell-shaped shrimp dumplings – and these were belters. While the skin wasn’t a gossamer thin as some (with my chopstick skills, I prefer them slightly thicker, anyway) the filling was plump and bouncy with discernible chunks of sweet prawn. Better still were spinach and prawn dumplings, their lurid cases stuffed with a garlicky mixture of chopped seafood and greens.

Another good reason to visit Ken Ho for lunch is for their selection of roast meats, served with choi sum atop a bed of rice or noodles. We had the holy trilogy of roast duck, char sui and crispy pork belly with crispy egg noodles, with my favourite bits being the slices of sweet and smoky barbecued loin and the glass-like postage stamps of perfect crackling.

As much as I love the combination of sweet and stodge, I grew rather jaded about char sui buns after coming back from a trip to China and realising nothing served back at home could ever seem to match those pillowy clouds of porkiness. The Ewing, however, never stops trying and is always quick to put in her order - apart from this time, when she acquiesced after my grumbles and ordered the chicken and mushroom ones instead.

Sadly these buns missed the salty spiciness of the traditional meat filling contrasting with the puffy dough. I was suitably chastised, as well as being left to eat my way through the unfortunate (or fought over) third bun that makes sharing dim sum between a couple so potentially tricky.  A sad situation that not even their fearsome chilli oil did much to rectify.

Thankfully, things ended on a high note, with a customary plate of custard buns. Far preferable to a doughnut, these had the perfect sweet dough to gooey, golden filling ratio with a nice textural crunch from being deep fried.

If that wasn't pleasure enough, I even poked a few chunks of leftover roast duck into the centre of my bun for a heart-stopping mouthful. Although, even the best dim sum couldn't send my heart as aflutter as my lovely lunching companion. Don't worry, I spared her the romantic talk over our meal; even the Ewing can go off her food. Happy anniversary, Lump. Here's to another year of eating adventures.

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Spurs Are on Their Way to Wembley

You’d think, after all the nerve-shredding high drama of our visit to White Hart Lane, the Ewing would have been put off football for a long while. But, mere weeks later she was clamouring to go and see them again, this time at Wembley versus KAA Gent, in pursuit of a place in the last 16 of the Europa League.

While Spurs European campaign so far this season had ended in ignominy, no wins at Wembley (their adopted home for continental forays while the ‘new’ Lane is being built) and being booted out of the Champions League after failing to qualify from their group, I had a better feeling about their match against the Belgian Buffalos, despite a thoroughly turgid first leg the week before where the Lilywhites had contrived to lose one nil and failed to chalk up the vital away goal (an appalling match where they played with no vigour at all - TE).

A girl can't chant on an empty stomach (the Ewing had spent most the week learning the words to Ossie's Dream, Chas and Daves effort for the 1981 cup final - 'Spurs are on their way to Wembley, Tottenham's gonna do it again! They can't stop'em, the boys from Tottenham, the boys from White Hart Lane, Oi!' Repeat until your wife gets pissed off with you - TE), so after a rather overcrowded train ride - thanks to the best efforts of Storm Doris blowing trees across the railway tracks from Beaconsfield to Birmingham - we stopped for a pre-match meal at Karahe Queen. 

A cheap and cheerful hole in the wall complete with laminated menus; Pakistani pop music; (very) late night opening and a BYO booze policy (a four pack of Ghost Ship, we're not lager louts you know), it's the perfect place to call in for some sustenance before or after the game.

Thanks to a diary conflict, I had already been out for lunch earlier in the day (a chilli dog on a belgian waffle followed by a chocolate peanut ice cream affogato) and, unsurprisingly, was feeling rather delicate of appetite. Equally unsurprisingly, the Ewing was primed and ready for action, so she started on the gratis dips and salad, featuring rather wan discs of carrot, while we waited for one of her favourites from the starter section, paneer tikka.

While I personally prefer risking a bout of heartburn from the spicier green chilli version of the familiar cottage cheese chunks, the tikka spice marinated cubes - threaded onto a skewer before being grilled in the tandoor and served on a bed of of pepper and onion – were still very good.

The keema here, as well as including the more familiar pea, is also offered with the addition of tinned sweetcorn. An ingredient that also crops up in a variety of the meat and veg karahi dishes on the menu. While this may horrify some, much like when the yellow kernels crop up on pizza, apparently it’s a familiar addition to many home-style curries in the north of India and Pakistan. I liked it, but then I like pretty much anything that included the Jolly Green Giant’s staple food source (yes, even the occasional deep pan pizza).

Something you also don’t often see on an anglicised menu is methi, or fenugreek leaves. Here they were added to the chicken karahi; a curry with tomatoes, ginger, garlic and 'secret spices'; and cooked and served in the eponymous iron pot. If I was being extra picky, I might have preferred a little extra greenery, but overall it was a well-balanced dish - nicely spiced and not too rich and oily.

To finish, we shared an aloo paratha, layers of enriched wholewheat dough stuffed with a spiced potato mixture and fried. If anyone’s come up with a better idea than stuffing bread with more carbs then I’ve yet to hear it, and far better for mopping up your curry than pedestrian pilau rice.

The bill came to a shade over £20, with tip, a not unreasonable amount of dosh for a reasonable amount of food – although it was only my reduced capacity after my lunchtime escapades which prevented me ordering anymore. 

Reduced capacity wasn’t a fate that befell Wembley later that evening, after a reduced price ticket deal saw Spurs sell out a full capacity stadium for the game. Sadly, although the N17 faithful were in good voice, a silly challenge from Alli (the author's favourite - TE) and a goal from Kane (the wonder boy, my fave! - TE) - sadly at the wrong end - put pay to our progress. Still, if the rumours are true and my beloved team relocated temporarily to Brent for the 2018/19 season then chance are I’ll be sampling the menu again.