Wednesday, 4 May 2016

Wey Hey, it's Grandad's Birthday


I wasn't ever planning to write about our recent adventures in Dorset. I mean, if you take a ragtag bunch of assorted family members who live scattered across the country and gather them together in a confined space to celebrate Grandad Alec’s (aka the Legend) 90th birthday, what could go right?

As it happens, plenty. Granted, we had to access our attic room via a slanted staircase that took some doing after a few pints (although look at the at view when we got there); and we got caught in a torrential rainstorm while walking home after dinner, and the high winds on the Sunday gave us an unexpected exfoliating treatment as we walked along the seafront. I’m still finding errant sand now. But overall, as Mary Poppins might say, it was practically perfect in every way.

We ate whitebait by the harbour in the afternoon sun; watched the Grand National in Rendezvous, (the last time I was in there I was dressed in a tiger onesie and the time before as a sailor, replete with pipe and beard…) and we still managed to sneak in an ice cream cone at Boho Gelato and a pint at the Boot before the birthday dinner.

Dinner itself was at the Galley, an unassuming looking restaurant adjacent to Brewer’s Quay, serving solid bistro classics straight out of the 70s. A blog post wasn’t on the cards - getting through the meal without incident or indigestion was my primary concern.

But, as it turned out, the whole evening was kind of brilliant, in that eccentrically English way. Good food, good service and great company. The kind of evening that makes you forget everyone’s faults and foibles and realise that, all in all, family are pretty great. A shout for the staff too, who bore our quirks with good grace and provided impeccable service all evening. 

While the company may have surpassed the culinary on this occasion, our meal was great in many ways. from the quintessentially old school menu - featuring gems such as gammon and pineapple, scampi and garlic mushrooms - to the atmospheric interior, with its stately flagstone floors, candlelight and dark wood, that was somewhere between a smugglers inn and a Berni Inn.

Our evening started with a variety of classic seafood dishes. And while my local Portland crabcakes may have contained a touch more potato than was strictly necessary, they were nicely made and the accompanying spicy mango and chilli salsa packed a surprising punch.

Scallops and prawns, gratinated in the half shell in a creamy wine sauce and a topping of crispy breadcrumbs were good, if a little dry. Better were Grandad's scallops, served simply basted in plenty of garlic butter. At just under a tenner, the scallop dishes weren't cheap, conversely the accompanying bottle of decent pinot, was chosen from a well-priced list (and the first of several).

For my main I chose the classic Come Dine with Me stalwart; beef wellington. Despite always being excited to see this on a menu, I think I've only ever really enjoyed it once - cooked impeccably by a friend of my parents many moons ago. I do, however, periodically order it on occasions like this, just to make sure. 

This didn't do too much to change my opinion, although it wasn't without it merits. For a start the pastry carapace was impeccable cooked, although this crispy triumph lead to the dish's biggest downfall; the fillet being overcooked, the obvious danger with an individual portion. That said I loved both the layer of garlicky pate on top and parma ham wrapped around the meat. The glossy mushroom and madeira sauce was also spot on.

My Mum has visited before and, being a creature of habit, she always has the Wessex sirloin steak cooked rare (they nailed the cooking with this one) and topped with sauteed mushrooms and stilton. Make no mistake, this was a huge strip of cow, only dwarfed by the even bigger pile of (very good) chippy style chips. Being as I was sat next to her, I was lucky enough to try a mouthful (or several) and concur it's worth a repeat visit.

Puddings are displayed in a cabinet, reminding me of family holidays in the Algarve, where the kids would escape from the table after dinner and press our grubby little faces excitedly against the glass, squabbling over what to chose.

In Portugal they only ever seemed to have boring creme caramel or rice pudding, and maybe a chocolate mousse if you were lucky, but here we were spoilt for choice. Pick of the bunch was the Ewing's homemade banoffee roulade, a desert of pillowy meringue, fresh cream and fruit, drizzled in caramel sauce. One for the sweet of tooth.

I couldn't manage to eat another morsel, but who could resist the charms of an irish coffee; the sweet cream and whiskey-laced beverage proving the perfect soporific send-off alongside the plate of after dinner chocolate mints that accompanied the bill.

And who could forget, the guest of honour himself. This picture is from my wedding, taken just after his second (or third) slice of chocolate cake following a huge plate of suckling pig. Mum said he didn't eat again for a week. A very happy Birthday to a true gentleman.

Image of Restaurant exterior from coolplaces.co.uk

Monday, 25 April 2016

Robbers and Cops - Regency Cafe and the MOJ


I've got an idea... Why don't you come 'round for breakfast? I'll squeeze some orange juice and grind some coffee and we can talk about this like adults. How's that sound?

Anyone that's familiar with the British crime caper Layer Cake may remember a pre-Bond Daniel Craig quoting the above line to a Serbian drug dealer who's on the hunt for a million missing ecstasy tablets. Even if you don't remember the intricacies of the script, then there's a good chance you would recall the scene filmed at Pimlico's legendary Regency Cafe, where a 'business breakfast' ends in an unfortunate incident with a kettle.

While our early lunchtime visit was far more amiable, nothing much else has changed; from the formica table tops to the plastic sauce bottles to the art deco tiling to the signed Spurs photos from the 60s, you could genuinely imagine eating here at any time during the last five decades and the décor being exactly the same -  preserved in aspic, just like the corned beef in their salads. 

Sure you can no longer enjoy a woodbine with your cup of tea - served here the colour of creosote (THE best colour for tea - TE) - but the food, from the steak pie with virginal boiled spuds and processed peas to the fish and chips served on a Friday, is unapologetically untouched by modern convention.

As well as an expertly stewed cup of splosh, dispensed from the ornate urn on the counter, there is also orange juice in glass bottles. Anyone who ever woke up to the clank of the milkman collecting the empties will share my nostalgia for the joyful ritual of shaking a bottle fresh off the step, before putting your thumb through the foil top. Happy days.

Our family only ever had milk delivered, so I was rather jealous to hear the Ewing’s mum also ordered orange juice for their breakfast when she was growing up; I’d have been very jealous if I’d found out she’d also had the little pots of Ski strawberry yoghurt.

The aforementioned homemade pie looked majestic, but who could pass up a lovingly crafted fry up - nothing’s getting grilled here. Here the standard English comes with either baked beans or tomato (both fresh and tinned are available) toast and tea or coffee. I added extra black pudding and shifted my egg over to the Ewing, although sadly they had already run out of bubble and squeak. 

For my money, this is exactly what a full English should look like; no avocado, no rocket (although I did notice my toast was made from brown bread) no fuss. The bacon was particularly noteworthy, although probably down to the fact it had been properly cooked on a well-seasoned flat top, rather than the provenance.

I’ve never knowingly turned down a stodgy school dinner-style pudding with custard, and here was no exception when I saw they had bread and butter pudding with cinnamon. Needless to say, my soporific tower of baked buttered bread, interspersed with plump raisins and spice and cloaked in a thick blanket of Bird’s finest made a fitting end to our meal.

The Ewing wasn't complaining too much about her chocolate sponge with chocolate custard, either. Both yours for two English pounds; we even got two free unclaimed cuppas thrown in to wash it down.

Regency Cafe Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Our slap up feast was followed by stop four on the #brutaltour, my ongoing mission to visit all 54 buildings on Blue Crow Media's map of Brutalist London with a trip up the road to marvel at the wonderful Ministry of Justice. Designed by Fitzroy Robinson & Partners, with Sir Basil Spence and completed in 1976, it stands out as a bold but fascinating chunk of modernism with it's fishtank windows and main tower that was, apparently, based on medieval Italian castles.

 
The last time I was here I was on the way to being late to my own wedding and had been told, in no uncertain terms, that there was no time for dawdling (although we still had room for a swift half before the ceremony. Also known as getting your priorities right). This time I had plenty of time to browse and found it interesting to see the contrast between the Regency Cafe, scene of a British crime drama, and the MOJ, brutal heart of British justice.

Built only thirty years apart, but a lifetime away in style and form, they both remain notable for different reasons; two nostalgic nuggets of London's recent history that's slowly being eroded by gaudy colored boxes and spiraling towers. As XXXX said in the film; 'when I was born, the world was a far simpler place. It was all just cops and robbers'.

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Bites: Home Sweet Home x2


Going out for breakfast is always one of the best things about going away (mornings at home usually involve something green and straight out the Nutribullet), and some serious amounts of beer on our recent trip to Manchester demanded serious amounts of ballast. 

So as Sunday morning dawned - an hour earlier thanks to the start of British Summertime - and we emerged a little fuzzy-headed, brunch at the new branch of Home Sweet Home seemed the perfect way to get the seasonal spring back in our step. 


With the original location in the Northern Quarter being as well known for its long lines that wind out the door at the weekend than for its bakes and breakfasts, this bigger spot in the Great Northern - with a large outdoor area for less inclement weather - makes a welcome addition for those who prefer their cakes without the queues. 

Losing an hour of shut eye also meant their free refill drip coffee was particularly welcome on our arrival, although shifting to British Summer Time meant we only just made it for the noon cut-off point for brunch; slackers beware. 

Being a vowed egg-avoider, breakfast can often be a tricky prospect. Yes, sometimes you can simply omit the egg component (or shift the unwanted ovum to your wife's plate - YUM! - TE), but often they compose a critical part of a dish, or indeed the whole menu - don't worry about that order it anyway - TE). As the saying goes; you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.

Which is why a menu featuring pancakes (eggs disguised in a batter are clearly ok) filled me with a frisson of joy, especially when the pancakes are the size of wagon wheels and come studded with bananas and topped with cinnamon butter and a side of double bacon. A Triple D worthy dish of deliciousness. You’re also in luck if you’ve had a heavy night and are struggling to get up and at ‘em, as these fluffy discs of wonder are served all day.

The Ewing debated between their hashes - crispy breakfast potatoes, eggs and variety of meats and veg and topped with melty cheese - and their benedicts - similar, but with an English muffin base and topped with hollandaise. In the end the Eggs Cali; a benedict based around house cured salmon and smashed avocado, finished with fresh peppers, onion and coriander; won out.

While poached eggs (possibly, along with hard-boiled, the very worst kind) are an integral part of a benny, I always think that hollandaise sauce (plus chipotle soured cream and avocado) provide sufficient lubrication without the need for an oozing yolk and I would have happily eaten this eggless. I might have still added a side of double bacon, though.

Unsurprisingly, after what had come before, even we struggled to contemplate ordering a slice of the magnificently gaudy array of cakes that we had passed on the way in. Less surprising was the fact that my wife's selective memory recalled me saying we would definitely still have time for a slice during our trip, forgetting that this was our last day before going home....

Which is how we ended up in their Northern Quarter branch merely hours after our brunch, eyeing up which one of these beauties to have for afternoon tea. It was a tough choice, but I found it hard to see past the 'Take a Peace of Me', a towering chocolate and peanut butter creation, quite literally - this thing was huge. 

While looking the part, it was pretty heavy on the frosting; a necessary concession, I suppose, to preserve structural integrity and to keep the cake light and moist. Indeed, the chocolate sponge itself was exemplary. And although the nutty flavour was a bit absent in the buttercream this was more than made up for by the hefty chunk of peace sign - resembling a certain well-known brand of chocolate peanut butter cup - that came embedded in the top.

After all the excitement, the Ewing was a little bit disappointed by her slice. While the vanilla chocolate marble sponge was, again, springy and light, the coconut flavour was more a waft of tropical breeze than a  full-on Ambre Solaire assault. I think she was also regretting not choosing the chocolatiest cake in the cabinet, which is her usual default position. 

On going to the counter to pay it was almost as if they knew she was missing her cocoa fix, the very kind chap cutting the bakes gifted us of a leftover piece of Easter egg and caramel cake (deemed too small to sell - it too was a behemoth) to take home. A very welcome, if rather unorthodox, start to the day when eaten the following morning and one that firmly met the Ewing's seal of approval. I, however, finished off the rest of the Easter haul. After all, it's not often I like eggs for breakfast.

Home Sweet Home Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Tuesday, 12 April 2016

Oh Manchester, so much to answer for


Easter time usually sees us take a trip to Leeds, for a long weekend of eating simnel cake, playing petanque and not winning the pub quiz. This year, however, saw a change of plan, being as my aunt and uncle decided for some unfathomable reason they would rather be sunning themselves on Bondi Beach instead of dodging hail stones in Wetherby.  There's nowt queer as folk.

While I was ruing missing out on a customary surfeit of roast beef and red wine, having four days off work gave us the perfect excuse to traverse the Pennines to enjoy a surfeit of breweries and beer shops. And a pretty big hangover.

First up on Saturday was an early morning trip across a Piccadilly trading estate for a tour and tasting at Cloudwater Brew Co. At just over a year old, they are already one of Britain's most lauded breweries and have created quite a stir with their innovative range of 'modern, seasonal beers'.

We had booked in for the 11 o'clock tour and, being as it's never too early for a beer when on holiday, we were greeted with a schooner of US Light Comet - a session IPA brewed to mimic the lite lagers ubiquitous in the US. A sensible start as the sun was not yet over the yard arm and a refreshing beer for a hot summer session (we'd be so lucky).

While there’s not a huge amount to see on the tour – the brewery and tap are all housed in one large unit and once you’ve seen one holding tank, you’ve seen them all - our guide, one of the half a dozen brewers working at the brewery, was friendly and knowledgeable. The experience probably best suited those who know their sparging from their spontaneous fermentation and want to ask more in-depth questions about home-brewing or their business strategy. 

It was also interesting to hear about some new experiments, based on their seasonal ethos, including the very lively barrel I was stood next to, which lead to a hypnotic few minutes watching the froth intermittently gush up through the bung.

After the tour was some more tasting and first up was the one we’d all been hoping for; their DIPA v.3 straight from the tank. If you have even the most cursory interest in all things keg-related, their DIPA is the beer on everyone’s lips. Or not, as the case may be, with limited stocks meaning this stuff is rarer than a brewer without a beard.

I have to confess, I haven’t tried the previous incarnations – v1 passed me by and by the time v2 was out I had already planned our beery tour up North, and wanted to have something to look forward to. The official release for this wasn't until the Brewdog AGM last weekend, but I had my fingers crossed we’d get a sneak preview. This was a tropical explosion, with a resinous chewiness and a light smack of booze on the finish. Certainly up there with the recent BBNO double IPA and Beavertown's Double Chin.

Beer nerdishness aside, we also tried a couple more of their spring/summer range in the form of the session IPA E.431, named after the 'experimental new hop' E.341 and brewed with German Comet hops and the black lager, like a summery black IPA and a great accompaniment to the bread and olives that appeared Jesus-like on our table while I was in the bathroom (I have many skills - TE)

I was very pleased to pick up a bottle of Hibernate Imperial stout for our cellar (cupboard under the stairs) from the onsite bottle shop. Although I was also pretty gutted that the last two bottles of IPA Citra that I had only heard great things about had literally just been nabbed from their tower of beer. The fact I was already pretty pissed softened the blow somewhat.

After finally leaving Cloudwater, a few hours after we had planned and several pounds down (monetary, unfortunately), we only had a short stagger to Track Brewery, who were holding an Easter Brewtap in conjunction with Squark Brewing Co. Although it was early afternoon, the party was already in full swing, with lots of beer - both keg and cask - from both breweries, a DJ on the decks and sparkly vegan cakes (I stuck with a bag of prawn cocktail Seabrooks to go with my Sonoma Pale Ale)

Mac Daddies were there bringing the food, and how could my wife, who's entering her fortieth year, resist the 1977. Although slightly dubious about the spice level promised by the 'chipotle infused four cheese macaroni with chorizo and spiced onions and topped with rocket and fresh red chillies', it was mercifully benign, heat-wise, if you avoided the fiery discs scattered across the top. 

The flavour, however, was full-on deliciousness. ooey, gooey, smoky and cheesy, despite the attempted concession to healthiness from the salad scattered across it. The Northern charm was also out in force as our neighbours, who we were sharing a bench with, happily shared their Squark Porter battered onion rings. And very good they were too.

Another recent addition to the Piccadilly Mile, Chorlton Brewing Company make 'contemporary beer inspired by Germanic brewing traditions'. Having first tried their beer (a sandalwood infused ale in Bristol, of all places), I was looking forward to their carefully curated trio for the weekend; an Amarillo Sour, a Citra Brett Pale, and an Eclipse black lager. 

The latter was the Ewing's choice; a schwartzbier brewed for Britain's 2015 solar eclipse that was mashed 24 hours before and then, just at the moment of totality, the yeast was added to the wort. I assume, from the speed in which she drank it, it was a heavenly as the celestial occurrence that inspired it. Not that I got to try it myself...

I had the Sour, which was excellent. With plenty of tangy citrus and sherbet this is proper summer refresher, but remember to bring the Rennies if you suffer from heartburn like I do. It was also good to chat with enthusiastic brewer, Mike Marcus - one of the best reasons to visit breweries, so you can meet some of the passionate people behind the getting pissed. 

We also grabbed a couple of each to take away. I'm particularly interested in how the bretted pale - fermented with brettanomyces not brewer's yeast - evolves. The BB date is 11.02.2021, but I'm pretty sure it's not going to last past the end of the month.

With a rapidly darkening sky beginning to threaten the promised biblical deluge, I was thankful that Beer Nouveau was just around the corner on, the fabulously monikered, Temperance Street - although by the time you read this their new brew tap will probably already have expanded onto the adjacent Great Western Street.

Of all the breweries we visited, I was perhaps the most excited to visit this one, mainly as I had read an excellent blog about their Easter Beer From The Wood Weekend -  with the promise of six beers that had been conditioned in and were being served from wooden casks. More specifically wooden casks that had been bought from Theakstons Brewery, with casks of the same beers also being served through a swan neck and sparkler for comparison alongside.

In contrast to our previous stops here there were no kegs and an abundance of traditional British hops such as  Fuggles, East Kent Golding and Challenger in a range of beers that included their take on Theakston’s Old Peculiar, Lee’s Moonraker and 1960’s Boddingtons recipe.

The Ewing tried the latter of these, a best bitter named Body Snatcher, while I sampled a more 'modern' version of the same ale, the Manchester Son. Both were fabulous, with unmistakable smoky whisky notes after just a fortnight in the wood. A great little place with great people, some interesting modern twists on classic beers and highly recommended for a half or two.

 
The Royal Flush of brewery visits came with our final stop, to the playing-card inspired Blackjack Brewery in the Green Quarter. We arrived with the party in full swing with grub curated by GRUB - including wood-fired pizza - and music curated by Goff. The big outside seating area meant there was also plenty of room to cut some rug

There were two cask and three keg Blackjack brews on offer when we arrived, although these were constantly rotating as they were open for visitors all weekend. And if you weren't trying to drink beers brewed solely withing the city limits (as I was) then they had bagged a good selection of from other brewers, with kegs from 6 North, Wylam and Brew by Numbers amongst others.


The atmosphere was as lively as the glass rinsing machine and we quickly bagged a table - albeit rickety enough to slosh beer on our shoes when we moved simultaneously - to enjoy our drinks. A pint of cask Royal Flush, an English hopped pale, for the Ewing and the Beginner's Luck, a NZ hopped pale, for me. Both decent, but I was hoping for a few of their more experimental ales to be on during our visit. I guess it's the Luck of the Draw - possibly the name of their next brew?

After spending most the weekend in drafty railway arches, surrounded by rubber hosing and stainless steel (a description that sounds far more kinky than the prosaic reality), we still had time for a couple of more civilised stops. First was Beermoth, a well-stocked Northern Quarter beer merchants. Although, by the time we visited there was sadly only an empty shelf space where the, now mythical in my mind, Cloudwater Citra once was. 

They also have an airy new café/bar where we sampled what looked like the world's biggest Jaegerbomb; in reality a pint of Quantum Pale Ale and an Alesmith Speedway Stout. While I had vowed to only drink beers made in Manchester (Quantumn, from Stockport, was the closest I could find in Beermoth) I couldn't pass up the chance to finally try the Speedway Stout - or, more accurately, order it on my wife's behalf and assist her with drinking it....


Last stop was the Port Street Beer House, where I persuaded the flagging Ewing we had time for one last hurrah. As she was ordering her half of Absence of Apples (an apple-less apple saison) from Mad Hatter (another experimental brewer worth looking out for), my eyes drifted toward a glowing orange label, glinting like a jewel through the sea of bottles in their well-stocked beer fridge; the Cloudwater Citra IPA. 


As the all-knowing (and never irritating) Stealth says, ‘it’s always in the last place you look’. In this case she was right, and it was well worth the wait.