Tuesday, 22 January 2019

Bucks bites: batter up

I’m not quite sure why the global schnitzel/escalope/tonkatsu phenomena hasn’t taken off on these shores. Sure, we have nuggets and kievs and breaded chicken strips (a box of 5 Maccy D’s Selects, with sour cream dip, is my new jam), but a flattened piece of meat, bread crumbed and fried, still remains elusive. And what isn't better breadcrumbed and fried.

After visiting Australia a few times to see my family, I'm often asked ‘why don’t you move there?’ To which I reply the weather (I’d melt); the history (I love old stuff, just ask my wife…); and the football (have you seen the A League…). 

But, as well as the fam, when I get back home I do miss being able to get a schnitty at the pub. Even if you have to drink your grog in schooners. For me it’s a near perfect pub meal, something you wouldn’t make at home – a proper schnitzel really requires shallow frying and involves much mess with all the double-dipping and dredging – and is also perfect to soak up the booze.

The Poles have a rich history of beating and breading things, which has made Syrena my second favourite place to go and eat in High Wycombe (almost next door to Dosa Special, which still remains my absolute favourite). 

It's a simple set up with a handful of tables, a counter at the back where you order and pay, and a short menu which includes both pork and chicken schnitzels (and sometimes a special of a breadcrumbed minced meat cutlet), which you can also order topped with cheese and mushrooms. 

I’m not always a traditionalist, but haven’t looked past the classic pork yet. The cutlets are crisp and hot and greaseless, with the thin carapace of breadcrumbs perfectly billowing up from the tender meat as they are fried to order.

Although the escalope covers most of the plate, there’s still room for a couple of scoops of potatoes, that exist somewhere in that perfect place between boiled and mash and strewn with dill. Salad won’t fit, so comes on the side. Normally two different types that may include their excellent coleslaw, beetroot, sauerkraut or pickled cucumbers.

The schnitzel topped with a layer of sauteed mushrooms and a layer of melted cheese is served with fries, garlic sauce and salad and is also pretty great, if not quite as great as the classic version. It's certainly a good post-pub choice (as the restaurant closes at 8, it would have to be an afternoon session).

Another favourite are tender slices of roast neck of pork that come with Silesian dumplings; bouncy potato dumplings traditional to the Upper Silesia region of Poland with a distinctive depression made with a thumb for gravy. The dumplings, which are similar to gnocchi, are boiled in salted water before being covered in the aforementioned gravy. Proper rib-sticking stuff that is especially good with their braised sweet red cabbage.

When we took Stealth along for dinner, she had one of her favourites, beef goulash. I think her favourite is still Mummy P's beef stroganoff, but she still seemed very happy with her choice. The beef and red pepper stew, with its deep paprika-spiked gravy, comes with buckwheat - an underrated grain that doesn't get the love it deserves.

Homemade deserts include pancakes served with sour cream and sugar - they can also be ordered as a savoury course with mushroom gravy or goulash - and crepes with cheese jam or Nutella. They also have a glass cabinet, like the ones my sister and I would press our noses up against when on holiday as children, with a variety of cookies, choux buns, brownies and waffles.

Even though I'm still off the sweet stuff, I have sampled their 'cheesecake' on several occasions before the sugar ban. I use the word loosely, as it's a behemoth featuring a pastry base, a fluffy cream cheese filling and a layer of fruit (I've tried plum and apricot), before being topped with a layer of crisp meringue. Unsurprisingly it's also very, very good. In fact, the only way to improve it would be to roll it in breadcrumbs and fry it.

Sunday, 13 January 2019

New Year, same old

When it comes to New Year’s resolutions I’m firmly in the Homer Simpson camp; ‘You tried your best and you failed miserably. The lesson is, never try.’ That said, I have a hugely determined streak, that surprises even me sometimes, when I want to set my mind to something.

For example, my ongoing Cadbury boycott -  that started in solidarity with the Ewing when they changed the recipe of Cadbury Crème eggs in 2015 - has now extended to encompass a blanket ban on everything Mondalez own, from Kraft mac and cheese to Ritz crackers via Oreos, Toblerone and Chocolate Oranges. Oh, how I miss popping candy chocolate oranges.

Not that I could eat the latter at the moment anyway, thanks to a self-imposed sugar ban that I began on the 13th of October, after ordering a McDonald’s chocolate milkshake for breakfast (yes, I know booze has sugar in it...). It was originally going to end over the festive period, but it's going surprisingly well, so now I am hoping to extend until Easter. Who can resist a hot buttered cross bun?

While I’ve been mostly extraordinarily good, in the style of the popular song I have found myself over the last few months eating four Malteasers (three original and one coated in raspberry flavoured chocolate, from Australia), three biscotti (when very drunk), two slices of Christmas pudding and a chocolate covered date (about as good as it sounds, but it did give me a little sugar rush).

More in keeping with my old habits, I persuaded everyone that what they really wanted was a (fairly) sober kebab on the Saturday before New Year. We had already sunk several bottles of Prosecco and (two sausage roll wreaths) but I did still worry about the wisdom of dragging people out to dinner at what is ostensibly a takeaway shop on Boscombe high street.

The surprisingly plush surroundings of the small restaurant area at the back - I was particularly taken by the juxtaposition of traditional tapestries and tin advertising signs - plus the BYO policy that saw us rock up with yet more bubbles in hand, meant the mood was more happily pissed and not pissed off.

The laminated menu is a short romp through familiar favourites, encompassing a selection of mezze dishes and moving onto grilled meats, with the notorious elephant leg kebabs rotating in the window and other skewers being grilled over a charcoal fire pit next to the counter. 

They didn’t have any borek available- a small mercy, given the volumes of food that followed - but the hummus was pretty good, if unspectacular (currently nothing is beating my own homemade #Nutribulletwanker version) and grilled halloumi came in an ample portion, balanced on a heap of redundant salad.

Starters were accompanied by half a dozen Frisbee-shaped puffy flatbreads, fresh from the oven, which looked like far too many, even for committed carb-fiends, until we realised they also accompanied our kebabs. Chicken shish for the Ewing and the Lion, a mixed lamb shish chicken donner for me. 

The bread, as the online reviews had promised, was excellent. crispy and soft and smoky all at once, although I was slightly saddened there wasn’t some under the meat to soak up the pool of juices and errant chilli sauce, which is what I asked for to accompany my kebab, along with a dollop of good old garlic mayo.

The chilli sauce was slightly curious, more like a Mexican style salsa, that we got addicted to while eating tacos around Southern California and Mexico last year, but no worse for it and a lack of heat probably helped with the corresponding lack of heartburn the next morning (although I did chug a few pints of water before bed to counteract the salt and sparkling wine).

The kebab was excellent – big chunks of lean lamb (neck fillet?) atop a pile of very good chicken donner; shreds of tender thigh marinated in a garlicky herby mix a world away from my student days.

The chicken shish was also commendable. Two skewers of marinated chicken breast, grilled quickly over charcoal and served with mixed salad, coleslaw, garlic sauce and pickled chilli peppers that all ended up on my plate. Not a bad thing to have forced upon you in all honesty.

2018 hasn't been a great one, truth be told. After a very bright start, the last few months, for various reasons, haven't been easy; at all. But these things too shall pass. And with the help of the ever-patient Ewing and all my lovely family and friends, plus plenty of fizz and skewered meats, I'm already exited to see what 2019 brings. If I carry on with the kebab life, gout and reflux, probably.

Monday, 7 January 2019

Jenny from the (concrete) block

I have a long running love affair with the Elephant and Castle stretching back to my late teens/early twenties, when I remember being in a friend's car, driving around the iconic roundabout late on a Friday night. The lights, the chaos, the concrete. A few years later Stealth moved in to a flat just off the Walworth Road and it quickly became one of my very favourite places. Anywhere.

The shopping centre, particularly, is an area that's often been maligned. I would say unfairly, but, as much as I adore coming out of the Bakerloo line tube station on a Friday night, and seeing the majesty of the Faraday memorial in front of me, looking to the left at the rain-streaked adverts for the bingo and the bowling pasted to the blue plastic cladding panels, I'm not sure that even I really think that's true.

Which is why I'm conflicted that the green light has finally been given to bulldoze the shopping centre to the ground. While proposals from Delancy building nearly a thousand new homes and creating a new university campus, there is an uneasiness that lack of affordable housing and the removal of many independent businesses will help hasten the social cleansing that has all ready irrecoverably changed the character of the area. With many people who have lived and worked in E&C pushed further into London's peripheries and much of the areas unique character lost.

Due to a very complicated arrangement that only could have been contrived by Stealth, on our last visit we had to be out of the flat at 9.30 on a Sunday morning. For two hours. As she had roused me early from my bed on Christmas Eve eve, I decided to extract my sweet revenge by insisting we all went for breakfast. In the Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre. 

Jenny's Burgers, tucked away in a corner on the first floor, remains curiously untouched by the 21st century speeding past just outside it's door. A relic from a time past there's a pane of glass in the window held together with hazard tape, a fruit machine, peppered with cigarette burns, by the counter and the interior decorated with Day-Glo pictures of the menu that have been printed out and carefully backed on sugar paper. There was also a little sprinkling of tinsel around the mirrors on our visit, to really ramp up the festive cheer.

Jenny's offers the JJ Burger, which appears very similar to Wimpy's - another iconic piece of British life that is slowly disappearing - bender in a bun. With it's curled frankfurter sitting atop a beefburger, I can't say I wasn't tempted, especially at £3.40 including chips, but it was even harder to pass up a fry up. And with the two guys behind the counter exuding a wealth of warmth and experience to all comers, I felt we were going to be in good hands.

You couldn't have a fry up with out a good cup of splosh, creosote-coloured and so strong the spoon stands up in it. As the Ewing and Stealth are fancy, they had a giant cappuccino and a gallon of black coffee, respectively. Alas, being extra caffeinated didn't help with the quality of the conversation much (although I must be fair and note the Stealth didn't try to read the Sunday Times on her iPad once).

I had chips almost solely to annoy Stealth, because of her mistaken belief they don't belong with breakfast. Although they were cut thin enough to be verging on fries, and a little wan, they tasted pretty good, and even better with a good squirt of abrasively vinegary ketchup. The sausage was comfortingly cheap and paste-like, just as it should be. 

Toast was white sliced (the Ewing, as she always does, ignored the sanctity of the completely refined fry up and went brown), with butter already melted. I added my beans, and a few errant chips, to mine for DIY triple carbs on toast.

While I'm reluctant to think good things about the changes that are going to befall this vibrant patch of South London in the coming months, I'm hoping provisions will be made for those who chose to make this their home and the unique character is (mostly) preserved. But for now, I was more than happy to see the annual outing of the Christmas lights around the iconic elephant that stands proudly outside the centre. Let's hope it's not the last time.

Wednesday, 19 December 2018

Finding my vocation

It wouldn't be our biannual trip to Leeds without a trip into town before we go home. As it was our December visit - for Christmas Number One - we also decided to involve some festive shopping. Theoretically that means a few hours happily browsing, while picking up the perfect gifts for all our friends and family. In reality that means bickering our way around two shops, max, followed by a row because it's been at least two hours since breakfast.

This trip was surprisingly peaceful - apart from a disagreement about which way to go beside a giant illuminated reindeer, which I'm blaming firmly on Google Maps - although I was exceedingly happy when my Uncle John called while were we in Lush, meaning I could duck outside to escape the eye-watering aroma of patchouli and despair. Even better he told us he was also in town, and did we want to meet for lunch.

Of course we wanted to meet for lunch. And where better than the very recently opened Assembly Underground, located on the previous site of the former Leeds School Board building on Calverley Street (as I was reliably informed by my Uncle). Run by Hebden Bridge's Vocation Brewery it features fifty taps of beer, a hidden cocktail bar and an open dining hall area featuring grub from Slap & Pickle, Felafel Guys, Punjabi street curry specialist Jah Jyot, Leodis Coffee, and Bread and Butter Churrasco BBQ.

Uncle John went for a classic pint of  what I *think* was Vocation's Heart and Soul on cask (I was somewhat distracted at the time, trawling through the vast beer menu myself). Whatever it was, look at it - all things bright and beautiful, glittering in the afternoon winter sun. He nearly managed a second pint, but a queue at the bar saw him fall back on plan b; a very nice looking flat white from Underground Coffee.

Somewhat overwhelmed with choice, I asked the barman for some 'murk' and was rewarded with a schooner of Vocation's Where's Dan, a delicious, opaque NEIPA that tasted, and looked, like hoppy pineapple Just Juice.  The Ewing, our designated driver, also went fruity with a half of the Vocation agave and lime radler. 

I hadn't already had a surfeit of red meat on my visit - with roast sirloin of beef for Christmas Dinner Number One, followed by a game pie at the House of Trembling Madness the day after - I decided to complete the hat trick with a big ass burger at Slap and Pickle.

I went for the light option with the Baconator and a side of Big Mick's fries. The burger - double cheese, double bacon, double beef, iceberg and burger sauce - was one of the best I've had this year. Salty, oozy, greasy, drippy, just like all the best things in life.

The loaded fries, as you can probably tell from the name, riffed on a popular burger chain's popular eponymous burger and came topped with burger crumble, cheese sauce, burger sauce, mustard, lettuce and pickles. Eat 'em while they're hot for maximum pleasure, although I do secretly love the odd cold and congealed chip that gets welded to the bottom of the dish.

My Uncle and the Ewing went for a bit of spice from Jah Jyot, Punjabi inspired Indian street food traders who have ended up in West Yorkshire via Horsham in West Sussex. Alongside curries and thalis they also offer a range of filled dosas, samosas and tikka wraps made with fenugreek chappatis.

Both chose a selection of curries including the Amritsar chicken with potato and fresh coriander and a vegan ajma (red kidney bean) curry with fenugreek seeds, which was excellent. Alongside were rice and the aforementioned chapattis, flecked green with the aromatic leaves.

Of course a trip into town wouldn't be complete without a visit to the Kirkgate market for provisions before the long schlep home -  which on this occasion included ten sirloins for a tenner and over three kilos of limes for two quid. having said that, I skipped the arseholes and tripe. My wife says that's the standard of my drunken Christmas conversation already...

Thursday, 6 December 2018

I said lady, step inside my Hyundai

So, it’s finally happened. Our trusty drive Steven Archibald (Archie) has given up the ghost; broken down; kaput; we’ve cruised ‘round the hood with the (manually wound down, if we can find the winder in the foot well) windows down for the final time.

While it was sad (sad? I was DEVASTATED - TE) when his head gasket finally blew, after 13 years of faithful service it was hardly a huge surprise. And now he can finally enjoy his time in the sun, it also meant we could think about a nippier replacement. Or certainly one with central locking; and less rust.

Which is how we came to take delivery of Beck - named after a lyric in Debra, one of the greatest falsetto funk numbers you’re ever likely to hear and already on heavy rotation on the stereo – with his wondrous Champion Blue paint job (a special release for the World Cup, they saw us coming) and a whole host of electrical mod cons with the potential to go wrong…

And after several long weeks of being bus wankers and utilising shanks’s pony, there was much excited anticipation for our first Sunday spin. And, whilst not quite the glamorous hills of Glendale, a jaunt straight down the A40 for breakfast in Brent seemed like a pretty good second choice. What have the Hollywood Hills got on the beauty of Hangar Lane gyratory.

Yet another Eater tip, this time from their 5 restaurants to try this weekend, a Friday column that tips the unsung and the far-flung, with the proviso that all suggestions must not be featured in either the Eater 38 Essential map, nor the monthly-updated Heatmap, and must be outside Zone 1.

Luckily, it often features somewhere from around my old endz, with exotic places such as Southall, Harrow and Rayners Lane getting a shout. A few weeks ago it was Dosa Express. Now, I can get pretty incredible dosas less than a ten minute stroll from my house, but that's no fun when you have a new motor to show off. I was also fascinated by the picture used to illustrate the story, showing the vast menu made of laminated sheets of A4, that stretched neatly across one wall and around the corner.

It's probably best to google the menu before you go, especially if you're indecisive, as the choice is vast (it also covers most the wall opposite) and is arranged with absolutely no rhyme or reason. Failing that, just look around and see what other people are eating, or what is being freshly cooked on the hotplate next to the counter, at least that way you can avoid food envy.

To drink we had ginger coffee and sweet, fudgy cashew and almond milk. I say we, but I found they smelt a little too much like scented draw liners and left them for my wife, who was hugely happy to have something sweet and soothing alongside all the fire and spice.

As well as dosa they offer a handful of other dishes, including vada, or lentil doughnuts, that were piled up temptingly on the counter, spinach pakoras and veggie samosas. We started with papri chaat, papri translating as wafer, or discs of crisp pastry, and chaat meaning 'to lick'. The pastry discs are broken up and layered with chickpeas, tamarind chutney, onions, yoghurt, chilli and fresh herbs, making a crunchy, sweet, sour and spicy snack.

We also ordered some chilli garlic paneer, that was served in a gargantuan portion that the photo doesn't quite do justice to. An classic Indo Chinese dish, the cheese curd cubes are stir fried with spring onions in a sweet and fiery sauce with huge amounts of fragrant garlic, chilli and ginger, served here with a token leaf of crunchy iceberg lettuce.

Obviously I had spent most of the week dissecting the menu but in the end eschewed the additions of cheese, salad, chutney and noodles, plumping instead for a classic rava masala dosa. Made with semolina, which helps give it its distinctive lacy appearance, the crisp pancake had been folded around a generous filling of spiced potato. Certainly beats cornflakes.

Alongside was a ladle of the familiar sambar, a thin vegetable stew with lentils and spices, a rich tomato and onion chutney and a virginal coconut chutney. The latter always looks so invitingly cool and fresh, yet ends up being the most insidiously fiery of the lot. Here was no exception, and I could just about note the sympathetic glances from the ladies behind the counter through the tears in my eyes.

The Ewing went off piste with the pesarattu paneer masala dosa, a pancake made with moog daal (green gram flour) instead of urad dal (black gram flour) and stuffed full with spiced potato, peppers, onion and shredded paneer cheese. This was a top rate dosa, although I'm not sure you could really distinguish a huge difference between this and a standard dosa, other than the slightly bilious tinge and a slightly spongier texture. 

And here he is, the main man himself, ready to whisk us away for some more culinary adventures. He's even got cup holders.