Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Oxford Blues

Following on from the first of my countdown to working Mondays blog posts, which saw me eating pork pies in drizzly Birmingham, my antepenultimate Monday off meant dragging the Ewing up the M40 to bask in the Oxford sunshine.

Whilst it may have a reputation for bucolic British beauty Oxford also has its share of ugly urban sprawl, and none more so than the Eastern side of the city. Previously this was the site of the outer ramparts of the castle, now it's home to humdrum expanses of grey concrete. It's not all doom and gloom in this part of town however. For here, incongruously tucked under the Bridge nightclub on Hyth Bridge Street, you'll find lauded szechuan restaurant, Sojo.

As well as szechuan dishes there is also a roll call of standard Cantonese and Shanghainese staples  - think sweet and sour chicken, spicy yellow bean chicken and, err, 'mouth watery' chicken - alongside a good looking lunchtime dim sum selection, but what's the point of going somewhere with 'SSS = Mind Blowing Spicy' dishes on the menu and not trying one. In this case the triple rated Szechaun pork for me and the beef and aubergine for the Ewing.

After such a menacing warning - the waiter even bought us glasses of iced water, unbidden, with our meals - the food wasn't too spicy - and no, I don't say that in the surreptitiously squinting, sweat breaking out on the brow manner of a lager-filled masochist trying to impress his mates on a Friday night. 

What is was, however, was delicious, the shreds of pork and crunchy strips of veg possessing just the right amount of tongue tingling from the fresh chillies and lip numbing from the szechuan pepper to provoke a pleasing glow. The Ewing's dish, with it's slippery curls of soy drenched aubergine and chunks of sweet beef, may have been even better (this is unheard of! - TE).

After cranking the heat up it was time to cool down again, and where better than one of my favourite ice cream parlours, G&D. As we were on the wrong side of town it was the perfect chance to try out the mini-chain's original branch, George and Davis, having previously frequented George and Danver on St Algates and the seasonal ice cream cart that appears on the street in the summer.

I had what I originally thought was the Oxford Blue (blueberry)but  was actually probably the Black and Blue (blackberry and blueberry). Soft fruit semantics aside, it was completely awesome. Whilst not normally a fruity ice cream fan, this balanced the sweet dairy and sharp berries perfectly. The Ewing got her buzz on with a cone of Kenyan AA, a coffee flavored ice that was demolished too quickly to capture (Too slow, Roscoe - TE).

It's pretty impossible to come to Oxford without imbibing a pint in one of their historied hostelries, and this time we headed off to the Turf Tavern, hidden down a narrow winding alley between Holywell Street and New College Lane.

The Turf Tavern is crammed (there isn't much room in here) with history. Not only has it had a role call of famous guests, including Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, CS Lewis and Margaret Thatcher. but it was also the the site of former Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke's Guinness World Record, where he sculled a yard glass of ale in 11 seconds. Legend also has it that the the Turf is where former U.S. president Bill Clinton, while attending Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, infamously 'did not inhale' on a herbal cigarette. There's even a plaque attesting to it, so it must be true. 

It's also, most excitingly for me, it was one of Inspector Morse's favourite locals. Hoping to inherit some of his curmogeonly intelligence by the osmosis of my surroundings (I'm pretty sure I'm already halfway there - I concur -TE) I tried the Turf Tavern's Landlord's Choice, 'an education in intoxication' and a fair enough pint to sup on a Monday afternoon.

The Ewing went with the topical Richard the III ale, Blue Boar, from Everards. 'An amber ale brewed with medieval taste of honey and mead with delicate spice and citric notes'. Scientists have recently revealed that King Richard III regularly drank around three litres of beer and wine a day, and liked to snack on the occasional swan. Which is probably how he ended up in a Leicester car park.

The skies may have been darkening ominously but of course there still had to be a library in there somewhere and nowhere seemed more fitting than a walk around the Radcliffe Camera, the neo-classical home of the Radcliffe Science Library and now part of the bibliophile's dream, the Bodleian.

'And that sweet city with her dreaming spires. She needs not June for beauty's heightening'
Matthew Arnold

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Second City Scenes

After nearly a decade of starting my week on a Tuesday, I now have to prepare myself to face the greatest horror of the working man – Monday mornings. A few weeks to go before the start of my new job I was determined not to waste any remaining vestiges of Monday freedom and so decided on an impromptu visit to the Second City for beer and pork pies.

I have a strange attachment to Birmingham, it being the scene of many rendezvous with Stealth when she was at uni, and a frequent stopping point (for gigs at the Glee club and post-booze food at the, sadly now defunct, Urban Pie) on trips to see Pavematt’s family in Wolverhampton.

In all my many visits I have never alighted at Birmingham Snow Hill, so I decided to throw caution to the wind and ride right to the end of the line, lured by the prospect of the recently opened York Espresso Bar directly in front of the station’s exit.

Well, it would have been if I had taken the same exit as everyone else. As it was I quickly became hopelessly lost, although whilst huddling under the cold and wet railway arches trying to right myself I did get to see some pretty cool pasted paper graffiti on the side of an old building down by the canal.

Finding the younger sibling to the original Yorks Cafe proved worth the effort, and I was soon ensconced in a window seat enjoying a Caravan pour over and a compost cookie whilst watching the commuters hurry past in the rain.

They area also the first place in the UK to serve cold brew coffee on tap. Here it is dispensed with nitrogen from a beer style ‘kegorator’ on the bar. Apparently many US offices now have one of these dispensing liquid caffeinated joy next to the water cooler; sadly I’m still making do with PG Tips in a cracked mug (well it got smashed this morning, so you won't have to put up with that any longer - TE).

Fully caffeinated and with the sun over the yardarm, I moved on to Pure Bar and Kitchen - an ever so trendy, and slightly odd sounding, mash-up between Birmingham's Michelin Starred Simpsons and Purity Brewing Co, based in near by Warwickshire.

Inside the incongruity continued; unsure whether to wait to be seated at the 'posher' tables to the rear, or to go and order straight from the bar (already looking retro with its exposed pipes, concrete and bare wood), I opted to head straight for the beer pumps and retreated across to the communal bench area with my drink and bar snacks. 

The last time I was in Brum I had enjoyed a pint of Purity's Pure Ubu, a traditional amber ale. This time I tried a pint of the new Longhorn IPA, their attempt to emulate the footsteps of the 'craft' keg pack leaders. An unfiltered golden ale that's triple hopped with big pine, peach and tropical fruit flavours, Longhorn is a big tasting, and very enjoyable, beer at a small 5% ABV. My accompanying pork pie, served with home made piccalilli, was even better. The very best of the West Mids.

Pure Bar & Kitchen on Urbanspoon
After enduring the horrors of the Bull Ring shopping centre, I retreated to Five Guys for a well deserved treat. This rapidly expanding Stateside burger chain has become known for their impossibly huge portions of peanut oil fried cajun fries and fancy drinks machines that churn out literally hundred of different flavour combos of soda or milkshakes (melon and grape Coke or malted bacon shakes anyone?). 

Following my simple burger rule (either salad with mayo, or pickles with ketchup) I chose the cheeseburger with raw onion, extra pickles, jalapenos, ketchup and mustard. As a fast food burger I've got some time for Five Guys. Yes, it's pretty greasy and the patties are more on the grey side than pink, but the beef always seems nicely charred and well seasoned, the cheesy suitably cheap and gluey and they don't skimp on the fillings.

The one criticism that is often levelled at FG is the price. Eight quid just for the cheeseburger isn't cheap, no matter how many handfuls of fried potatoes they throw in the bag to distract you; and it's hard - if you're in the Big Smoke at any rate - not to think of P&B, Shake Shack MEATliquor et al at a similar price point. But, although contributors to the Guardian comments section may disagree, there is life outside London, and often Five Guys may well be your best provincial beef-based option.

Five Guys on Urbanspoon
With the sun finally putting his hat on, I had to take one of my last busman's holidays to the magnificent Library of Birmingham, where I thought of local lad and sci-fi author John Wyndham's words “And we danced, on the brink of an unknown future, to an echo from a vanished past.” 

Tuesday, 31 March 2015

On the Lash, Leeds Style

Visits to Leeds always mean some sort of exciting ale trail along with some great company. This time I had seen Tony Naylor’s timely best Leeds craft beer article in the Guardian, but my Uncle had gone one better and cut it out, alongside various flyers and menus in anticipation of our visit. Anyone who knows will realise just how deliriously happy the prospect of a pub crawl, plus a handful of takeaway menus can make me; and that's before we'd even left the house.

Research done, the first stop on our sodden Sunday trek was to Bundobust, a craft beer bar and Indian street food hybrid. Whilst the concept - combined with the plywood benches and exposed brickwork inside - may seem peak hipster, the award nominations, mass internet adoration and weekend queues prove they are obviously doing something right.

I started off far less than sensibly for an all-dayer with the Skor Brun, a Belgian strong ale from Mikkeller at 8%. This was pretty decent, if a little sweet, with plenty of caramel, apples and dried fruit although probably best consumed in small quantities.

My Uncle and the Ewing went with the crisp, spiced house coriander pilsner - which is brewed by a small family run Czech brewery - that pairs perfectly with their range of Indian street snacks.

To eat we shared a selection of dishes including a great masala dosa stuffed with potato & onion and served with lentil soup and coconut chutney; the idli sambhar rice dumplings served in lentil soup with chutney; and the gobi bhaji, a crispy fried orb crammed with onion, cauliflower & spinach, served with a tamarind & red pepper chutney and modelled by Uncle John. On Sundays you can also get brunch, with a bloody mary with their egg bhurji (a kind of spicy scrambled eggs) for a tenner.

Bundobust on Urbanspoon

Next there was a moment of confusion where we thought we had headed to the Head of Steam, but had actually ended up at nearby Tapped, a welcome mistake as not only do they serve a huge selection of cask and keg beers, including ones they brew on site in their own microbrewery, they also serve Big Dan's homemade pizzas.

It took a while to decide what to drink, but in the end I went with the Roosters Baby Faced Assassin, a nice enough pale ale brewed in nearby Knaresborough, whilst the Ewing chose the Magic Rock offering, Dark Arts: Surreal Stout, a mix of four malts and bags of hops. If my memory serves me right - and after all that beer who knows - Moyra tried the Magnum PA single hopped ale which was a Irn Bru orange hue, with plenty of grapefruit and spiced rye flavours.

They serve a selection of pizzas, but the one you really need to know about is the N'duja Want Some? Complete with the eponymous spicy sausage, pickled jalapenos and red chilli (you can have scotch bonnets if you're a real maniac) and a good splash of Dan's beer 'n' chilli sauce with pineapple and hop oil.

The rest of the pizzas we tried - including the special with sausage and broccoli rabe and one with blue cheese, rocket and walnuts - were great, but the Fishy One (a Napoletana by any other name) that Moyra ordered is also well worth a mention if you're into your capers and anchovies.

The Midnight Bell, the Leeds Brewery flagship, is a good old fashioned pub with plenty of good old fashioned beers. They produce four permanent casks; Leeds Pale, Yorkshire Gold, Leeds Best and Midnight Bell, alongside seasonal ales and kegged beer including the Leeds brewed lager, Leodis, the Roman name for Leeds.

I do love me a pint of Leeds Pale, a brew that I have grown accustomed to drinking at the annual Thorner (the village my Aunt and Uncle live in) Boule Tournament, alongside sausages grilled expertly by my cousin, Will. This year the Leeds Brewery also sponsored the annual Thorner Comedy festival, which we had attended (and drunk a few pints at) the night before. It's a proper Yorkshire bitter, and none the worse for that, and at a respectable 3.8% it's also deceptively easy drinking.

Alongside our beers there were peanuts, as who doesn’t love a pint and some peanuts, although they also had a special pie menu for Pie Week that saw each pub in their stable of six in Leeds showcasing a different pastry product as well as Leeds Best battered fish, Yorkshire gammon and steaks and Swaledale sausages.

Midnight Bell on Urbanspoon
Our next and furthest stop was the Northern Monk Refectory, trendy bar and microbrewery in Holbeck which is housed in a grade II converted flax mill. Arriving buffeted by the rain and wind, we found the initial lack of coat pegs and tricky to get your leg over (steady) communal benches didn’t make the warmest welcome, but once we had got firmly ensconced - and discovered their bookcase full of beer geek books and board game - things started to look steadily up.

They improved even further with the beers; mine was a Northern Monk Monacus, their New Zealand hop-packed pale ale, while Uncle John loved the Chennai, a dark, spiced porter. The Ewing’s tipple was a Belgian wheat beer, recommended by the bar man and one that seems destined to forever remain nameless due to forgetfulness and intoxication (I swear there were oats involved - TE). A real shame as this was a cracker, being fresh and hoppy whilst having the citrus, banana bread and bubble gum characteristics of a great wheat beer.

The food is provided by the Grub and Grog Shop, who bill themselves as 'flavours for the curious', With a Sunday menu that offers a mix of local game alongside vegan dishes and a sandwich menu that boasts fillings including kohlrabi and mutton served alongside celeriac porridge topped with malt oil it makes a welcome change from burgers, slaw and pulled pork.

We shared dishes of parsnip and hop cakes with glazed beetroot, crispy cavalo nero, salsa verde and lentils; and an ox tongue hash with celeriac mash, pickles, kale, hop syrup and stout gravy. Both were outstanding, both in value and flavour, with the tongue being the standout, although overall the flavours veered a little towards over-sweetness for my tastes.

Moyra also tried a slice of their vegan carrot cake. Whilst I think she found it a little dense and claggy I have to say I found it pretty delicious, although sadly I’m not sure the lack of animal products and the addition of extra veg could possibly have categorised it as a health food.

Grub and Grog Shop on Urbanspoon

Finally the rain had stopped, so we swapped the industrial chic of Holbeck for the history of central Leeds' Scarbrough Hotel - or Scarbrough Taps to the Loiners - a popular pub by the station that has been taken over by Nicholsons.

While I'm not adverse to a Nicholsons pub - I still think back fondly to the breakfast served at the Shakespeare in Brum - I sometimes find their beer selection lacking inspiration. Here they had a decent range of keg ales and stouts, but most seemed to come from dahn Sarf, with few local beers on offer. I also have to confess that I don't remember what anyone drank, save for a Nicholsons own pale ale that came with our burger, which is brewed down St Austell and is a fair enough pint of ale.

The special of iberico pork and chorizo burger with chips was too good for my Uncle to resist and it was a pretty decent effort, the juicy and well seasoned patty studded with big chunks of garlicky sausage and housed in a squishy glazed bun with lashings of mayo and salad. Crisp battered onion rings, at a quid for a bowl, were equally appreciated by my Aunt.

Last stop was perennial favourite, Brewdog Leeds, just in time for the release of their small batch Bourbon Baby, a baby (5.8% abv) scotch ale which is then bourbon barrel aged to add a smoky vanilla and brown sugar intensity. Smooth and easy to drink - with plenty of shortbread, honey and raisins – but with a lower alcohol punch than the taste belied. 

I went off piste with the Mikkeller guest beer, Wheat is the New Hops, an India Pale Ale brewed with wheat and fermented with brettanomyces. This had a clever balance of grassy hops with a touch of clove and lemon wheat underpinned with a slight brett funk. Drunk rather too quickly, so we wouldn’t miss the once hourly Sunday service back to the sticks, this was one fine final fling that set us up nicely for an evening of gentle snoozing and reruns of the Chase. 

Many thanks again for our partners is crime, Moyra and John, in the making of this production. Who yet again risked biblical floods and battering winds to make sure we were sufficiently overfed and inebriated. It was a pleasure as always.

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Fischer's Baslow Hall

In a bid to trump conventionality the Ewing and I celebrated our nuptials on Leap Day. As well as being a suitably contrary date, we also cunningly thought it would avoid the need for scrabbling round for the least wilted bunch of petrol station flowers every 365 days. Of course, all that has actually happened is that we now seem to find ourselves celebrating both the 28th February and 1st March.

This year we also decided to throw in a lunch on the 27th, at the Michelin starred and highly lauded and Fischer’s of Baslow Hall, which was just down the road from where we were staying in Tideswell. That's of course  if we could correctly follow the sat nav; instead we ended up taking a more ‘scenic’ route and having a customary anniversary ‘disagreement’ before we had even arrived.

Luckily things picked up pretty quickly and we were soon enjoying a glass of fizz alongside some chickpea jenga chip thingies, served with a dish of sweet and smoky spiced aubergine puree, whilst sitting beside a roaring log fire in the drawing room. So far so good.

On being seated in the dining room we were left alsone with the fancy bread basket, a very dangerous thing indeed, which contained a hazelnut and raisin roll (good) and a treacle loaf (better). This was followed by an amuse bouche of onion soup topped with thyme foam. The herb infused foam, so often an unpleasant spaff of froth, was particularly tasty, working well with the sweet earthy soup.

We had picked the - very decent value at £27 for three courses - set menu, and to start I chose the seared squid with radicchio risotto; a riot of dark pink grains topped with a scattering of frosty sea herbs that looked rather like nuggets of green glass that had washed up on the beach. This was very good without really jumping up and grabbing me, I think I was expecting more of a bitter note from the radicchio to act as a foil for the sweet and tender squid.

The Ewing’s sea bream with blood orange and fennel was another fine looker. Here the bright acid punch of the citrus really set off the fish, which had been cooked perfectly to end up with crisp skin whilst remaining soft and flaky within. Blood orange is a fabulous thing, and here the brightness and astringency felt like a welcome shot of summer.

For the main we both chose the bavette with shin pie, cheesy mash, greens and carrots. Well, who wouldn’t? This was another fine piece of cooking; the slow cooked shin served in a hollowed out marrow bone only being improved by its buttery potato carapace. The steak had an iron-rich smoky flavour that paired perfectly with the slick of good gravy and pile of roasted root veg.

To drink I went with a Thornbridge Jaipur, brewed just up the road in Bakewell; a rather unconventional but spot on pairing with the spiciness perfectly complimenting the beef. The Ewing had a fishbowl of something red, French and pricey. Good job I love her.

My pudding, a kind of ‘deconstructed’ vanilla cheesecake with blood orange sorbet, felt like a bit of a disappointment, but only because there was so little of it and it tasted so good. Refined and beautiful is all very well - and the cheesecake was meltingly buttery and rich, probably not to be recommended in huge quantities - but three mouthfuls doesn't a memorable pud make.

In contrast the Ewing’s chocolate cake with brown butter ice cream, crumble and malted cream came as a generous slab of stickiness that kept even her quiet for a few minutes. The smoky caramel sauce and malted cream made particularly fine accompaniments.

From here we retired back into the drawing room for coffee and petit fours in front of the fire. The coffee, a silver cafetiere of giant proportions that was left on our table for us to help ourselves, was a caffeinated dream for the Ewing. Although she may have felt differently when trying to sleep later that evening after five or six cups of the stuff. The petit fours - fair salted caramel truffles and fabulous raspberry macaroons - were also very welcome, even after all that had preceded them

The whole Fischer’s experience is resolutely old school and none the worse for it. From the glasses of fizz to start to the coffee around the fire to finish, we were looked after impeccably. What’s more it’s thumpingly good value grub if you eat from the lunch menu and the manicured grounds are the perfect place to burn off a chocolate truffle or two. A very happy three quarters anniversary, indeed.

Fischer's at Baslow Hall on Urbanspoon