Thursday, 19 January 2017

Wet and dry at Jackson and Rye

I’ve - somewhat inadvertently, mainly due to illness and Christmas over-indulgence and an attempt to support the Ewing, who's trying to kick the slimline menthols  - managed to get through the year thus far without recourse to an alcoholic beverage. In fact, I didn’t even have a drink to see in the New Year.

While all of this may seem horribly out of character, I can assure you I’m having lunch at one of my favourite pubs next week, and if I’m not several sheets to the wind, ordering a big bowl of chips and gravy, at about five o’clock then feel free to send help.

In the meantime I’ve developed a fried breakfast habit – possibly as it’s a meal that’s still best consumed with gallons of mahogany-coloured tea (unless you’re in the airside Wetherspoons at Gatwick, where a pint of Stella is also mandatory). Handily replacing the strain on my liver with a strain on my arteries.

Sadly, the humble greasy spoon is a dying breed and I was forced to go a bit more upmarket for brekkie on our recent trip to rainy Richmond, choosing the riverside outpost of Jackson and Rye for brunch. And while Marina O’Loughlin didn’t much care for dinner at the Soho branch in her Guardian review, she did like 'the American-style pancakey brunch', which is good enough for me.

We could have started proceedings with a bloody mary, or even a virgin one, but that would have been a bloody shame. Instead we went for the drip coffee, served DIY style with a tray of assorted paraphernalia that felt a bit like a scene in Trainspotting. Bonus points for supplying enough hot water for two large mugs each and for warming the milk, if you like that sort of thing diluting your liquid caffeine.

I took Marina’s advice and chose the pancakes, served with caramelised banana and maple syrup cream, and a side dish of candied maple slab bacon. As soft and puffy as Madonna’s cheeks, these were serious stuff and were some of the best pancakes I have eaten in a while. I particularly liked the banana, which had been bruleed on top with a burnt sugar crust, but was still raw underneath; cooked banana is just Not Nice. Top marks, too for a full syrup jug on the table, which I made full use of.

Bacon was thick cut and smoky, my only real grumble being that, like the pancakes, it was served lukewarm. I haven’t yet reached the age where I’m slavishly obsessed with plates being nuclear temperature and enjoying my food glowing like the sun, but tepid fat on my rasher isn’t that appealing.

The Ewing was thwarted after her first choice of salt beef hash and poached eggs was off the menu and while the waitress and I managed to persuade her the hueuvos rancheros was the next best thing, she remained unconvinced. While not a bad dish, it’s not as much fun trying to eat a crisp corn tortilla - topped with fried eggs, avocado, black beans and hot sauce - with a knife and fork, for breakfast, when you’re really craving a big heap of comfort food. The crispy home fries were very good, though and I applaud any dish that manages to sneak chorizo in before midday.

Overall, while our brunch was a cut above tinned tomatoes and meat paste sausages, it was also slightly less fun - or maybe that was the lack of booze talking. Still, sticking to soft drinks kept the bill commendably low for these parts - 27 quid including very charming, if slightly scatty, service.

Wired with caffeine and satiated with refined carbs and lashings of sugar and saturated fat, we shuffled off in the drizzle for a leisurely walk down the Thames - where I managed to take the above photo that combines Don't Look Know with Alfred Hitchock (one for the film buffs). I could get used to this Dry January lark.

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Wycombe Bites - Red Squirrel Brewery Shop Emporium

My last Wycombe Bites blog started with an adage comparing new bars to buses, this time I'm beginning with one about the levels of precipitation. And, with the Brewery Shop Emporium following hot on the heels of the stylish Heidrun, lucky Wycombians now find it’s the craft beer that’s pouring. 

Opened as the flagship branch of the Berkhamsted-based Hertfordshire brewers Red Squirrel, the Emporium is a split level part bar/part bottle shop/part pizzeria. And if that doesn't fulfil all your worldly needs, there's also fresh coffee, wine and snacks and even a cold room - where you can pick cans and bottles, to drink in or takeaway - where the beers are stored at perfect imbibing temperature. 

A fun (if bijou) space to browse when they first opened, back in the dog days of summer, it's something more of an endurance, standing in what is essentially an oversized fridge, now the cold weather has set in. Luckily you can see everything through the glass windows, to save yourself getting frostbite while you dither. The lovely staff are also always on hand to help with a suggestion or have a chat about what they're drinking.

Fortuitously (or not) I have to walk past on my way home from work, so have become a bit of a regular. And while all the beer has been reliably decent, one thing that does set it apart from most local hostelries is the quality of their cask offering. 

Sometimes you just want a ‘boring brown bitter’ - which, kept properly, is still one of my favourite beers - or a refreshing golden ale or a warming ruby number. While the cask here it’s probably served a touch too cold for the purist, I far prefer this to the lifeless, syrupy stuff that’s sadly often the norm in this neck of the woods. Even better, it’s often cheaper than the keg version of the same beer (a subject that's recently got everyone a flutter all over again thanks to Cloudwater's recent blog).

As well as their superior cask - their Green Hop, brewed with hops grown in Berkhamsted, was one of my beers of the year - the keg and bottle selection is also sound. The taps regularly showcase beers from Cloudwater, Chorlton, Magic Rock and Anarchy among others, alongside a big range of (mostly) British bottles and cans at pretty fair prices.

As with the cask, the keg beers I've most enjoyed drinking here are Red Squirrel numbers - brewed under their experimental 'Mad Squirrel' umbrella. My two favourites being their creamy milk stout, a roasty dark beer brewed with lactose, and their DAPA, a 7.8 percent incarnation of their original american pale ale that has become the traditional nightcap on work nights out and a traditional regret the following morning in the office...

Snack wise – a critical part of any decent bar's offering - they have a reasonable selection of Pipers crisps, posh nuts and the very good Billy Franks jerky, made by the fab @billyfrankscouk in a railway arch on Druid Street in Bermondsey. If they had pickled onion Monster Munch or grab bags of Quavers they would have my heart forever (frazzles for me please - TE), but it’s a good start and there's always the garlic bread (get it with cheese, obviously), which is perfect to tide you over when you’re trying to work out which beer to order next.  

Following on from the garlic bread, they also have pizza, which is prepared from scratch in the small ‘kitchen’ area behind the bar upstairs. If you’re a purist, you may want to look away now as flavour combos include pastrami, olives and pesto; smoked salmon, dill and cream cheese (very good); ham, hop oil and star anise-spiced pineapple; pepperoni and pickled jalapeno, pulled pork with bbq sauce and, rather surprisingly, my favourite pairing of jerk chicken, peppers and pine nuts. 

In (my) ideal world it would be fired in a wood-fuelled brick oven and bought to the table blistered and crispy with a slightly charred crust – but, back in HP11, it’s cooked in an electric oven and arrives looking more like a frozen pizza that you’ve tried to pimp up at home by adding the contents of all the half-finished jars in the fridge.

From a pizza-fanatic this isn’t a criticism - far from it, frozen pies have got me through some difficult periods of my life -and, for oven-baked pizza, this is really very good. The polenta-dusted crust has a nutty sweetness that pairs well with the bold toppings, while it's crisp structural integrity means toppings can be piled up while the base remains robust. Perfect drinking fodder.

From your morning coffee to your late night night cap, the Red Squirrel is the perfect all-day one stop shop. And, as the long as the beer is flowing and the pizzas are being flung, I'm very happy to make another home from home in my adopted home town.

Thursday, 29 December 2016

Uncle John's Barbecue and Beer Crawl

Of all the adventures on our annual Visit to the North, I think our Leeds-based pub crawl, accompanied by my Uncle John, is my favourite. Not only is he eternally patient (last time, we went to three different places across Leeds before we found cans of Northern Monk’s Ice cream pale ale), but he also shares our boundless enthusiasm for finding new places to eat and drink; as well as our enthusiasm for just eating and drinking generally.

This time our beer crawl took in the Duck and Drake (old fashioned boozer with log burner and tip-top local ales), Wapentake (friendly café/bar with £2 a pint Tuesdays on cask beer) and Little Leeds Beer house to stock up on supplies, before a promised visit to Bem Brasil to eat barbecue; copious amounts of red meat being another of our shared interests.

In case you have managed to avoid the protein-driven trend that arrived here several years ago, Bem Brasil is a churrascaria (a hard-to-spell way to say barbecue restaurant) that specialises in all-you-can-eat Brazilian barbecue - skewers of assorted grilled meats, carved tableside, accompanied by a variety of hot and cold buffet dishes. And, as it was Christmas, obligatory elf costumes for the churrasqueiros and a bonus chocolate fountain for dessert.

Now, it may be hard to hear limitless meat and not to think of greenery as a pointless distraction, but I was a big fan of the buffet selection - albeit probably because many the dishes involved mayo, cheese or being deep fried. As well as all the salad staples there were some traditional Brazilian items, such as black beans, with pork and pao de queso (Brazilian cheese balls) and, for those who are hankering for something a little more ‘local’, dishes of yorkies, gravy and roasted brussels sprouts.

The real dangers with a buffet are two-fold – overloading on carbs and overloading on everything. I am well practised in carb-ditching, from the days when I used to go out to the Chinese buffet after the pub with past work colleagues and quickly learnt that less rice and noodles meant more crispy duck and shrimp. The latter is always harder, although I managed to exercise enough restraint (just) on this visit, to end up with an, only slightly incongruous, mix of cold salads (the tuna, and a Russian-style salad being particularly good) alongside beef and tomato stew, polenta and the aforementioned sprouts.

Of course, the Ewing heeded no warning and threw herself at it with her customary gay abandon, ending up with a mountain of cold meats, plantain fritters (like a banana rolled in breadcrumbs - the best bit for those of us sweet of tooth - TE) and cabbage. When our basket of chips arrived (they are available on the buffet, but they will fry them to order if you ask), my Uncle, jokingly, asked if she had room for one, before crowning her pile of food with a solitary fried potato stick.

When a glimmer of white space had been cleared on our plates the procession of meats began to emerge from the kitchen, expertly carved by our smiling elfin waiter, who not only impressively still boasted a full compliment of digits and a clean shirt but also kept us topped up with the Good Stuff throughout our meal.

Of all the meats, Uncle John’s favourite was the roast lamb, while the Ewing favoured the spicy little chorizo sausages. I couldn't decide, happily oscillating between chicken thighs wrapped in bacon; the rump steak, with its glorious frill of fat that tasted just like a Sunday roast; and the pichana, or rump cap, the comma shaped speciality of Brazilian barbecue cookery.

Previously my only experience in all-you-can-eat skewered meat had come in Australia, when my sister took us out to dinner in Coogee and I unwittingly realised that by agreeing to sample some of the, less than popular with the other patrons, grilled chicken hearts, I had pretty much committed myself to finishing the whole skewer. As much as I was a fan, a dozen or so Coração de Frango piled up on your plate can soon turn from springy, well-seasoned morsels to salty rubber pucks.

With Uncle John with us, I had no such concerns this time - even if the Ewing didn’t care for them, so I still ended up with a double helping. One thing we did all agree was fantastic was the moceuena, a Brazilian fish stew with a tomato and pepper sauce from the selection of hot buffet dishes. In fact it was so good, I’d go as far to wager it would even get my, mostly vegetarian with the odd bit of fish, Aunt through the door. She would definitely have enjoyed the carafe of merlot.

Feeling a gout attack was imminent - the Ewing was too full to even contemplate the chocolate fountain - we flipped our discs to red and made our way to old favourite Northern Monk. And, like every time we have previously visited, it started raining just as we headed over the Liverpool to Leeds shipping canal.

Which made the Super Kris stolen pale ale, followed by their ambrosial Strannik stout, at 9%, the perfect, warming digestifs. Same time again next year, then?

Thursday, 22 December 2016

House of the Trembling Madness

York is a city that is positively stuffed with history (alongside a surfeit of fudge shops) and the House of the Trembling Madness - tucked away on Stonegate, as you head towards the Minster - is no exception. The rear of the building dates back to 1180 AD, the first Norman house built in York, while the medieval hall upstairs is still traversed with original ships beams that would have set sail on the seas all those centuries ago.

All which makes for a wonderfully quirky interior, with the added bonus of the uneven floors and low door frames that make you feel a little tipsy before you've imbibed a drop - the place is named after the Delirium Tremens after all. Hit your head on the aforementioned beams and you could also wake up feeling like you've got a hangover.

The pub part of the operation is on the first floor - the aforementioned medieval hall and a marvellous room with a vaulted ceiling, ornate candelabra and a wall full of stuffed animal heads. The whole effect bought to mind the kind of place Henry VIII might hang out for a casual tankards of mead, when he wasn’t hosting lavish jousting tournaments or executing his wives. The sheepskin rugs on the chairs and Christmas soundtrack also contributed to the warming feeling of Hygge. Although, retrospectively, that could have also been the brandy in the mulled wine.

In our customary eagerness, we were the first through the doors for our late breakfast/early lunch. And, as even I had to concede, it was beginning to look a lot like Christmas, I started with a pint of the Fairytale of Brew York from the selection of cask beers on the bar. Beers from the shop may be drunk upstairs for an additional £1.25 corkage fee per bottle. 

The Ewing went with the mulled wine, and while it wasn't quite up to the standard of my Aunt's at the panto the day before (she's an expert muller), it was still commendable - as well as being pretty lethal at half eleven in the morning. If you fancy something even stronger check out their beer shots which range from Brewdog's Tactical Nuclear Penguin at 32% right up to The Mystery of Beer, brewed by Dutch brewers 'T Koelschip, and weighing in at a hefty 70%.

Their menu states 'we believe that you should be able to eat food whenever you are hungry or need it, so we have a policy of whenever the pub is open then the food is always available to you'. A nice touch, although beware if you fancy an early pie, as we did, as you may have to wait for your gravy to warm up.

The food, expertly prepared in the tiny galley kitchen that also doubles as the bar, mostly focuses on platters of cold meats, pate and cheese, with a couple of different incarnations of the beef burger (although no chips) and a few hot dishes that can be served with mash (pies, sausages and a daily-changing stew).

The festive salmon platter was a gargantuan array of grub for a mere £6.50. More importantly, it was excellent; hot toast, cold butter, punchy pate with ribbons of smoked fish and capers studded throughout, a dab of dill mustard and a pickled chilli chaser. The homemade House of Madness slaw rounded things off - providing crisp respite from the full on flavours.

The Ewing picked the booze-inspired cheese platter, with wedges infused with Yorkshire whisky, Yorkshire beer hops and Drunken Burt's cider, alongside a Wellington blue and Green Thunder garlic and herb, all accompanied by bread from the Via Vecchia bakery, on the nearby Shambles.

Generous and delicious, although, if I had a criticism, the different flavours soon became pretty indistinguishable. Still, large amounts of cheese and crusty bread with a bunch of redcurrants thrown in for good measure. You can't really go too wrong with that.

I also had to have the steak pie and pea 'tapas', served with a jug of beer and onion gravy A kind of reverse Peter Mandelson with his mushy pea guacamole. If you could find this kinda stuff on the bars of pubs the way you find ham and omelettes in Spain I'd be a happy (and even fatter) girl.

Just in case we weren't already on course for for a seasonal dose of gout, we decided we couldn't miss the Swaledale sausage ring, infused with 7% Yorkshire imperial stout and served on a floury bap, from the breakfast/early lunchtime menu. A very wise choice, especially with lashings of butter and a blob of dill mustard. 

Going back downstairs after lunch  bought to mind the tale of when Pooh goes visiting at Rabbit's House, eats all the honey and promptly gets stuck in the doorway. Thankfully we could still squeeze through to fill our basket from an aladdin's cave of, (very well priced) beers that include a large range of Sam Smiths, from nearby Tadcaster, alongside hard to find local beers, Belgian classics, and American hop bombs There was even a collaboration stout, Descent Into Madness, brewed with the Bad Seed Brewery in Malton.

Down in the basement there is even more booze, with a variable assortment of spirits including gin, whisky, bourbon and a shelf full of the kind of lurid drinks you bring back from two weeks abroad and leave to gather dust on the sideboard for the next decade. There is also a whole case dedicated to the green fairy, absinthe, whose mythical properties were thought to cause many imbibers to hallucinate - although this was more likely caused by withdrawal symptoms from acute alcohol dependency than from the liquor itself.

Oscar Wilde said of the green stuff; 'after the first glass of absinthe you see things as you wish they were. After the second you see them as they are not. Finally you see things as they really are, and that is the most horrible thing in the world'. Unless you're tucked up upstairs, pint in hand and a plate of bread and meat in front of you. Then things look pretty good.

Thursday, 15 December 2016

Crispy Duck

Every time I see my Leeds-based Aunt and Uncle they seem to have a story about their most recent visit to London - a story which usually includes going to ‘Crispy Duck’ on Gerard Street, their favourite dim sum spot for more years than my aunt would care for me to tell you. And every time I hear about it I think I need to get to Chinatown to try it out for myself. Before completely failing to do so.

Of course food and failure are not compatible concepts in my mind - especially when it involves missing out on copious amounts of saturated animal fat with a side order of those puffy little pork buns that have become the Ewing's must order - so when we recently found ourselves tired and hungry somewhere around Shaftesbury Avenue, there was only one place we were going to end up.

Auspiciously, our visit wasn't long after my Uncle’s 70th birthday celebrations - where we had all walked from the Southbank to Piccadilly and I had asked my Uncle to point out the restaurant to me when our route took us up Wardour Street. 

Not that it would have hard to miss, with the big yellow letters and the hooks of roasted poultry hanging up in the window. Although, from the larger, more discrete, sign above the door, it appears the official name is the more prosaic 'Oversea Chinese Restaurant'.

Set on three floors, we were led down to the basement dining area, where the clientele was comprised of fifty per cent Chinese couples, studiously eating dumplings; and fifty per cent couples on first dates, eating the set banquet for two while making nervous conversation. With a raucous family reunion thrown in for good measure. 

All of which provided a lively atmosphere and the perfect mix for people watching - although the distractions made attempting to fill in our choice of dumplings on the carbon paper slip with the little Argos ball point pen more difficult than usual. Luckily the pictures and corresponding numbers on the menu made things a little easier.

The Ewing, who was sporting one less tooth than the week before, was mainly sticking to a liquid diet (something that’s very easy with my Aunt and Uncle around…) and so started with a small bowl of wonton soup.  While I didn’t sample the soup – 'good and gingery' was the verdict – the wonton I managed to snaffle was plump and tight and stuffed with bouncy prawns and minced pork.

From the roast meat and rice menu I paired the eponymous flying avian with a helping of roast pork belly. The duck, as its name suggests, had a crisp, lacquered carapace which gave way to the soft and sticky meat underneath. The pork belly was even better; wobbling chunks of meat striped with thick ribbons of fat and edged with crispy skin.

Ask for their (super hot) homemade chilli oil, which, along with the soy sauce served with the rice, provides a foil to cut through the richness. This isn't food for the faint-hearted.

When I first got together with the Ewing my two favourite things (apart from her of course) were burritos and turnip cake; two of the only things she didn't really like. Subsequently I've had a Mexican wrap and Chinese snack-shaped hole in my life for the past eight years. 

Because of the recent dental work, my wife had already announced she 'wasn't going to eat much', so I took this as the perfect opportunity to order the stir fried turnip cake with chilli sauce, beansprouts, spring onion and finely shredded omelette. Unfortunately, not only did she decide she was quite peckish after all, but she also liked this dish as much as I did. Fortunately it was a huge portion and, well, sharing is caring.

Scallop cheung fun were fine, although retrospectively I wish I'd chosen the barbecued pork version as the bivalve/rice noodle combo was a little too slippery and slithery. More successful were the XO prawn and scallop dumplings with truffle and better still the delicate beef and ginger wontons.

We also ordered char siu buns, which have been the Ewing's favourite ever since we went to Hong Kong a few years ago. These were decent, if unspectacular. Although after years of ordering them every time we go out for dim sum, I think I can safely say I've reached peak pork bun. (Surely not possible - TE)

I've been on my aunt's team at the pub quiz and she doesn't often get things wrong, and her recommendation here is no exception. Good value, central location and, food-wise and it does exactly what it says on the tin - Crispy Duck looks like remaining a family favourite for a few more years to come.

Oversea Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato