Thursday, 22 September 2016

Blacklock

While it might be our national dish, the roast dinner is notoriously tricky to get right.  For a start, everyone knows that Mum’s make the roast, and each family has its own particular foibles and quirks. When I was growing up Sunday dinner (served at 6 o’clock) always came with cauliflower cheese and roast parsnips, and yorkies (my Dad made the best), were only ever served with beef. The Ewing’s Mum served both mash and roasties with the meat - a double carb concept I still struggle to get my head around.

Which all conspired to make going to Soho’s Blacklock on a Sunday, despite their reputation for the best roasts in town, a gamble. Not only that, during the rest of the week they specialise in chops and, despite my solidly English credentials, I think I might actually prefer gnawing a chop to a Sunday dinner. Yeah, I know.

Anyway, as it was mid-September and we were eagerly anticipating a change in the weather – before, of course, we knew a freak heatwave was bringing the hottest temperatures of the year - the Ewing managed to grab the very last table. This was a victory I feared would be pyrrhic when we saw the weather forecast and began to question the wisdom of sitting in a dark basement eating platters of red meat and potatoes swamped in rich gravy.

I may as well spoil the surprise by saying now, even if the only remaining table was in Hades and I had to cross the River Styx to get to that first bloody mary, I would make the same choice again every time. As it was, we were shown to one of the best tables in the house - positioned below the skylights in the pavement - although anywhere seemed like a good table when we saw the hordes of people that had already been turned away by five past twelve.

The heat did result in one concession, swapping a bloody mary for a gin and juice as I was craving something more refreshing - which also, I convinced myself, came under the vague guise of healthiness (yes, somebody went off piste, this was not what we agreed before hand - TE). The Ewing’s BM was exemplary, but an abundance of the most pleasingly shaped ice cubes in the glass left her wanting a bit more of the beefy (a preface of things to come) beverage.

You can order spit shanks of bone marrow covered in a snow of freshly grated horseradish, or giant wood-grilled scallops with bacon and peas – as the guys on the table next to us did, to our jealous looks – but we went straight for the ‘all in’, a platter piled up with all three roast meats, gravy and all the trimmings (something we had agreed a week before our visit after studying the menu together - TE). As it’s hard to break a habit, I also chose the cauli cheese, more for nostalgia’s sake as even I wasn’t worrying that we wouldn’t have enough food to keep us going.

This was a roast any mother would have been proud of, in fact, it was almost equal to my own mothers, right down to the cubes of not-quite-crackled crackling (one thing she was never very good at), which were completely delicious nevertheless. There was even a random pork rib on top of our mountain of food, which reminded me of being allowed to gnaw at the bones in the kitchen as a treat if I helped carve the meat.

The pork looked a little pallid against the blush red meat, but was deceptively juicy and made a fine start  to the meal (I usually follow the ‘best til last’ method, while the Ewing goes in head first -  (in case I die in the process, fancy dying before you ate your favourite thing - TE)). Round two saw the lamb, both our favourite of all the meats, with a transcendental dish of cauliflower cheese, with a four cheese sauce, and a rainbow display of carrots. Finally I moved on to the roast beef, which was good but not quite as good as the lamb, which I ate with a very fine Yorkshire pudding, perfect green beans and a lick of good horseradish sauce.

While I’m probably the only person in the world who isn’t really bothered about roasties, these were very good - although with the vast amounts I had already eaten it meant I still lived up to my nick name of ‘Amy One Potato’, which, as you can see above, did make me feel rather sad. 

Stealthily (or probably when I was probably messing around with filters on Instagram), the Ewing managed her trio of spuds plus my remaining pair, meaning we only ended up leaving the gnawed rib bone. Believe me, I did try to eat that too.

One thing neither of us wanted to do without was pudding, here you get one choice, white chocolate cheesecake with seasonal fruit, which made ordering easy. Served up at the table from a large earthenware dish, this was a wonderful cheesecake that had possibly the most rustic buttery biscuit base I have encountered - you can see the errant rubbly chunks that sprinkled over the top. The accompanying berries were both sweet and tart and I particularly enjoyed that they were served in a Shippam's potted meat dish.

Clearly, we were both in love; with the food, our waiter - who had the Ewing in stitches while dishing out our desert  (oh the staff were dreamy, such good fun - TE) - and the fact they bought toothpicks, for our chops, with the the bill - which, at £80 including tip, was not too considerable at all for all the food and drink we had consumed.

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

Still there's always room for a little more... and it’s at this point I would like to apologise to my wife, for a whole litany of misdemeanours, but on this occasion for making her, after our gluttonous display, walk around the corner to Gelupo in an attempt to fulfil my ice cream-in-every-blog-post-during-the-summer. 

Not only that, I also made her eat our double scoop of bonet - with chocolate and caramel - and ricotta and sour cherry pretty much single-handedly, only stepping in to help her finish the last mouthful of cone. From the couple of licks I had, the ice cream remains peerless as ever. One of the only things that my mother (whose best attempts at pudding when I was growing up mostly stretched to ‘yogurt or fruit’) can’t quite yet compete with. Still, she does buy me tubs of ‘Oh My Apple Pie’ Ben and Jerry's when I visit, which is quite alright with me.

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

Saturday, 10 September 2016

Wycombe Bites: Big Yellow Taxi

For a long time the only curries you could reliably get around my neck of the woods were the familiar North Indian/Pakistani/Bangladeshi itinerations. Your common garden tikkas and kormas and bhunas, served with bread baked in the tandoor and a side order of seekh kebabs and lamb chops. All very tasty stuff – my favourite curry house would always find room to squish you in, even once memorably on a busy Friday night, on a table that was halfway in the broom cupboard. Don’t worry, even with the complimentary fruity shots at the end of the meal there were still no Boris Becker-esque shenanigans.

While I would never turn down a lamb dhansak with a peshwari naan, I always missed having a Sri Lankan/South Indian nearby. The kind of place that swapped the flock wall paper and sitar music for Formica and the smell of frazzled curry leaves. Even if one particularly hot kingfish curry I had in Bournemouth made me go deaf for the evening.

Which is why I was so excited to find Wycombe had its own little café, tucked away on the wrong side of the tracks, where they served English breakfasts until lunchtime and then a selection of homemade fluffy idli, crisp dosa and uttapam, string hoppers and puttu, served in metal trays accompanied by fragrant mutton, prawn and chicken curries, coconut chutney and fiery sambal.

The first time I visited was early on a Sunday lunchtime in the depths of winter, where we ate mutton rolls and perfect masala dosa washed down with fluorescent bottles of Nelli Crush, the famous Sri Lankan gooseberry flavoured soft drink that's sweeter than Shirley Temple, covered in honey, aboard the Good Ship Lollipop.

I became obsessed. I couldn’t believe that there was somewhere so close and so cheap - more food than we could comfortably finish for little more than a fiver a head – that served such authentic, and delicious, food. Yes, it had it’s down sides, erratic opening hours, erratic availability of dishes, no loos, no license (we’d get around the last two by going to the pub first and stopping by the pub on the way back)  forgetting your order, giving you things you hadn’t ordered (spontaneity and the element of surprise is key here - TE) making the bill up as they had lost your order (thankfully, always to the customer’s advantage).

From the 'short eats' section of the menu, the Sri Lankan version of snacks and starters, the yoghurt vadai  - home made 'doughnuts' made with urad lentils, served with yogurt and herbs - were recommended. You could also have your vadai with sambal - a kind of vegetable curry, or just on their own. Confusingly they also served masala vadai, which are made with toor lentils and are shaped more like a flying saucer.

The chciken 65, a Sri Lankan classic, was also good, the deep-fried chunks of chicken, strewn with curry leaves and onion and served with lime wedges; as was the veggie version, made with cauliflower. And the chilli paneer, and the pepper mutton...(let's be frank, everything is good, better than good, it's delicious - TE)

In fact, it was all great, from the peerless mutton biryani, the paneer with spinach, the delicate rava dosa - made from semolina - and the outstanding kingfish curry, served with puttu - cylinders of steamed coconut rice, or string hoppers - steamed nests of fine rice noodles. 

It was also good to see some more unfamiliar items such as the Kotthu, whose name translates as 'chopped', the name deriving from the sound the large knives that are used to mix it make against the metal hotplate. It's a dish that's normally prepared at the roadside from leftover roti bread, eggs, vegetables and meat. Maybe not the best looking dish on the menu but delicious after a few beers. (EVERYTHING IS DELICIOUS AFTER A FEW BEERS - TE)

Of course, after a while the glitter wore off a little. My waistline started to rebel (even though I had to schlep across town for my fix), my wallet started to rebel (even at these prices, I was getting a pretty expensive habit) my digestion started to rebel (I even began to crave mashed potato over mutton biryani).

Weekly (or bi-weekly) visits became less frequent as complacency took hold. Although I still liked the feeling it was always there to satiate the need whenever the urge for insanely hot curries, washed down with insanely sweet drinks, took hold.

That was until one Friday evening in front of the TV, when I remarked to the Ewing that I quite fancied a dosa for brunch the following day. On opening a well-known online food delivery app, so I could plan my choice in anticipation of our visit (yes, I do frequently do this), I experienced a moment of blind panic as 'closed down' in foreboding red writing appeared next to their name.

Don't it always seem to go that you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone (very Joni Mitchell - TE)... I was immediately bereft. After a dark few minutes, where I thought about all the times I'd blown them out for a takeaway pizza or sweet and sour ribs washed down with a big bag of prawn crackers, I calmed down enough to think rationally and Google the address. They hadn't gone, just changed ownership and had a menu revamp and name change. Lentils, served in a multitude of different ways, were back on the menu. It was all going to be ok.

Well, better than ok, actually as the new menu features the rocket dosa, which is pretty much identical to the ordinary dosa, but just looks a lot more dramatic. It's an item that's often found on children's menus and makes a far better choice than Bernard Matthews turkey Jetters when it comes to aeronautical-shaped foodstuffs.

I was also pleased to see the kingfish curry with rice hoppers is still on the set menu, although the rice noodles are now pink, coming from being made from roasted red rice. On this occasion it was also served with a wonderful sweet and sour beetroot curry, that I've sadly never seen since. Maybe one to try at home with our allotment beetroots, that seem to spiral out of control each year.

I've never, yet managed to sample the squid, but the prawn curry, served above with spinach and coconut and cashew nut rice, is commendably generous with the crustacean and yours for six quid. I find the spinach (and sag paneer) here a little thin but the rice - not usually my favourite accompaniment - is always buttery and fluffy, which is far more than can be said for my efforts.

They also now do appams, which according to the menu are served on Wednesdays and Thursdays, but I wouldn't bet on it.... We managed to get lucky on an early dinner visit and enjoyed the plain appams served with a sambal  made with dried fish and chilles and the coconut hoppers, spread with a sweet coconut milk jam, that made a soothing pudding after all the salt and spice.

They also serve what I think has become my favourite weekend (read hangover) breakfast. Forget bacon sarnies (WHAAAT??? - TE) and McMuffins, the choly bhatura - with a can of Rubicon - is where it's at. The choly part is a chickpea curry while the bhatura is a puffy fried brad to soak it (and the alcohol) up with. The steamed idlis - shaped like little flying saucers - are also a great, but not as good as the chilli idlis which are chopped up and stir fried with lots of spices.

As usual when eating my dinner, I've saved the best for last. This is maybe not the best picture of a dish I have eaten almost every time I've been here, but the mutton curry with freshly made Keralan bread is my favourite dish that they serve. 

Here it's with the veechu roti, or handkerchief bread, so named because it's rolled very thin before being fried on a hot griddle. The normal parotta is slightly thicker, but still breaks apart in flaky buttery layers that soak up the fragrant gravy that is rich with the flavours of black pepper and fennel seeds. A must try dish.

So what's the moral of this story. Don't take things for granted?  Support local businesses? Eat more curry? Well, all of the above, really. And when it leads to night's like the one's above, it's a place I hope we don't lose.

Tuesday, 30 August 2016

Wham BAM

Everybody’s got a friend at school (yeah, even me) who‘s a little bit different (in fact, this was me); in the restaurant world this friend would be Black Axe Mangal. For a start, you hear BAM before you see it, the heavy metal music booming out above the noise from the Highbury Corner roundabout (a great location for catching the bus back to Marylebone). 

I still remember my dad approaching my room when I first moved in to student halls and telling me no one would want to come and speak to me with the music (Manic Street Preachers, The Holy Bible) turned up so loud. Well, of course, that was kind of the point.

Here, the music competes with the smell of charcoal-grilled meat and freshly baked bread, a little more enticing than the student scents of piles of washing and congealed pizza. The heavy metal soundtrack is also complimented by the decor, a Kiss mural painted on the brick oven at the back of the tiny dining room, where their famous flat breads are fired by tattooed head chef Lee Tiernan – formally of St John and Spitalfields Bread and Wine.

And let’s not forget the floor, where the stripped back floorboards have been artfully graffitied with multi-coloured spurting cocks. Not something I ever replicated growing up, although I did have some Mapplethorpe prints and a postcard of Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ stuck to my noticeboard.

The short menu is similarly uncompromising; simple dishes full of bold flavours with lots of spice and ingredients such as pigs tails, lamb’s offal, quail and scallops. You may even get to finish with Jameson whisky ice cream, if you’re lucky.

The squid ink flatbread with egg yolk and smoked cod’s roe was a party both in my mouth and on the plate - quite literally with all the pink glitter strewn across the top. As an avowed egg-avoider, I was wary of the just-set yolk, but dining solo meant I had to face my fears head-on. After a satisfying nudge with the tip of my knife that set the gooey blaze coloured yolk flowing, it was scooped up, along with the bracingly salty fish paste, with a chunk of the puffy bread that is all freshly baked on site.

The burnt hispi cabbage with fermented shrimp butter sounds about as exciting as a side of vegetables can get. Half a cabbage, flame grilled until it’s edged with a bitter char is served soaked in a sweet slick of melted butter studded with tiny preserved pink shrimp. The very essence of umami.

The big disadvantage of eating solo is lack of capacity; the very real fear you’re going to miss out on something. Shared between a group, half a cabbage isn’t a lot; but eaten all alone you start to feel a as if a wafer thin mint would be a bridge too far.

But, while brassica overload meant I had to skip the mission spiced quail and the scallop with crispy pig's tail, there was no chance that I was going to pass up the dexter mixed grill with bulls heart tomatoes and hash browns. A decision I wasn’t to regret, despite getting the meat sweats as the platter of barbecued beef and fried potatoes arrived at the table.

Alongside a superlative piece of steak – served perfectly charred outside and very rare within, which seems to be the default level of ‘doneness’ here – was a chunk of kidney and some thin slices of tongue. Now, I’ve previously never met a kidney I’ve liked – a couple of chunks in a steak pie might slip down covered in enough mustard and gravy, but even the dainty little rabbits kidneys we were serve at Le Manoir had that unfortunate uric tang – but this chunk of offal was a springy, smoky joy. 

The blushing tongue, not always a favourite, was also spot on; a far cry from the creepy rolls of bobbly, gelatinous pink stuff that always freaked me out when I had to cover the deli counter at the supermarket I worked in as a teenager. 

As I've said above, BAM is not for the faint-hearted;  it’s brash and unapologetic, just like the food they serve, but a perfect choice for those who like smoke and salt and blood and their heavy metal dialled up to 11. Pretty much all of my favourite things, bar the choice of music, although I’m not sure the Smiths sounds quite as good cranked through the speakers. But, despite the differences in musical tastes, we'd still definitely be firm friends.


Keeping up my summer tradition of featuring ice cream in every blog, I also made a stop to Udderlicious on Upper Street. I would say it was after my main course but, as you can tell from the sunshine, it was actually before dinner. Hey, surely having pudding first is one of the few perks of being a grown up.

Set up by Raj and Raj, a married couple with a huge love of frozen deserts, Udderlicious ice creams are made organic milk from British cows. And, if you go on their website , you can even chose what core flavours they stock each month, as well as suggesting your own flavour of the month. Chocolate Marmite, dandelion and burdock, or bourbon sour sorbet anyone.

I chose a double scoop tub; the chocolate peanut butter was smooth and dreamy, although a little underpowered in the legume department. Yeah, I've played Trival Pursuit enough to know that peanuts aren’t real nuts. My second choice, espresso with chocolate biscotti chunks, was even better. As an adult I’ve come to realise that coffee, pairing so well with cream and sugar, is possibly the ideal flavour for a frozen dessert. Add biscuits and chocolate and you can’t really go wrong.

I'm currently planning my second trip to look at Milton Keynes architecture (my first was as a moody geography student). A post-modern town famous for their modernist shopping centre and concrete cows; I'm looking forward to seeing what kind of ice cream they produce.

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

Monday, 15 August 2016

Go West

A day out looking at the Czech and Slovak Embassies and municipal town halls may not sound like most people's idea of fun, and my wife is no different. But when she discovered there was a soft launch at new Mexican restaurant, Killer Tomato, plus Brewdog's were releasing their live keg beer, the Ewing was much more amiable about schlepping all the way out to Shepherd Bush on a Sunday.

As much as I love them and need precious little encouragement to sit on my sofa eating them, it’s still pretty hard to get too excited about chips and dip. That said, it’s not cricket to start a Mexican meal without them and the one's served at Killer Tomato are the real deal; thick, a little oily, crisp and salty – just like the ones we were served at El Faralito, with a spicy salsa that made the Ewing bare her gums like a rabid chipmunk after eating it (not my finest hour - TE)

This time they were served with an impossibly smooth guacamole, flecked with fresh herbs and bright with lime and garlic, and served in a deceptively indecent portion. Alongside were Tommy's margaritas, nicely made with tequila, mezcal and the requisite salty rim

The brisket – a notoriously hard meat to get right - balls appeared as a trio of unremarkable-looking bread crumbed pucks but, as with the chips before, appearances can be deceptive. Packed inside each crisp carapace was a huge hunk of cow’s shoulder, the meat slow cooked and shredded to a soft, juicy tangle. The mayo alongside was also noteworthy, packing the promised spicy punch.

In fact, I liked it so much I used the bed of shredded cabbage the balls were served on to make a kind of deconstructed slaw, lest any were to go to waste – even more impressive/unappealing for my wife, due to the lack of cutlery.

From the taco selection the sticky chicken (served with the same poky mayo as the brisket balls) was good, as was the beer battered fish and crunchy slaw – served on a funky purple corn tortilla. The flavours of 'green chorizo with chips' were more unusual with the soft sausage filling - spiked with plenty of coriander and onion before being chargrilled - reminding me of the shami kebab that’s served at my local curry house.

The special taco, chosen by the Ewing, was a chicken skin crackling with feta and chopped green chillies. I have recently discovered the joy of making crispy chicken crackling at home, usually covered in Slap Yo Mama Creole seasoning and eaten, alongside a cold beer, straight out the oven. Of all the tacos we tried, I think this was my favourite. The perfect balance of crunchy, creamy and chilli spice and giving me inspiration when I concoct my next late night drinking snack.

There’s plenty to like at Killer Tomato (beyond the generous soft launch, featuring 50% off both food and drink); bold flavours, interesting ingredients and lovely staff (but not my hand or wild eyes - TE). Portions are decent, but I’d probably need a little more ballast after a few of their drinks, especially as our second cocktail - the summer cup with tequila, Argentinian 'champagne', agave and lime was particularly lethal. 

That said, the hungry (or drunk) also have the pick of bigger options on the menu with (rice-less) burritos (including pork belly and crackling), cheeseburger tacos, crayfish tostadas and weekday lunch deals with drinks and fries for a tenner. There's also a wicked looking ice-cream drowned sandwich for desert. Two of my favourite things on one plate.

To maintain inebriation levels we crossed the street to BrewDog (not far to skip and only moving vehicles to dodge - TE), to try their new interpretation of cask ale. After giving up cask a long time ago as, in their opinion 'more than half the cask ales served in the UK are substandard in terms of beer quality. We also felt the beers we were making at the time all suited keg dispense better and that cask ale was best suited to lower ABV session beers'.

Understandable if you are supplying to other outlets maybe, but doesn't show a great deal of faith in your own bars if you think they can't serve their own BrewDog beers on cask properly....

Despite this stance against cask (one shared by many other breweries recently) a quest began, helped by writer Pete Brown, towards creating what eventually became LIVE beer. A beer that would behave with the consistency of keg but have the character of cask and would produce a perfect pint every time.

In Brewdog's words 'LIVE beer is craft ale, conditioned in a key keg, Fermented without top pressure, then lightly centrifuged to remove hop debris the beer is packaged and allowed to ferment and condition inside the keg and is served on draft at 9.5°C through a sparkler... gently sparkling and 100% awesome'. The usual hyperbolic swagger we expect from the Scottish brewers, but does it match all the fuss? 

For me Dead Pony Club - the only beer that's currently been given the LIVE treatment - is a pretty solid session pale ale anyway, so it's hard to say this new twist added much. Serving it through the sparkler aerates the beer, giving a nice tight head and some body to the beer, but mutes it's hoppiness. Overall a refreshing, if not standout, pint which, as it's served slightly colder than cellar temp of 'normal' cask, is well suited to this weather.

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

When I was last in Australia my sister told the Ewing and I about the Coldstone Creamery, an ice cream parlour where deserts are customised with different 'mix ins' on a block of frozen granite, and where she and her friends had spent their gap year gorging on their icy creations. Now, I’ve eaten lots of ice cream pretty much all over the world, but suddenly visiting their Manly branch in the north of the city became a quest of almost mythical proportions.

After taking the ferry across the bay and stumbling around in the heat trying to find it (in the pre-smart phone days, and of course having no map and no idea…) eventually we asked a kindly chap, who seemed greatly amused to hear about our mission and helped direct us there.

Of course, the ice cream couldn’t live up to the expectations, but I think that’s somehow the point with these things, the thrill of the chase. And while Four Winters, our next stop, didn’t quite have the excitement of our Manly mission, the ice cream here - created by adding dry ice to the liquid ice cream base – is even more dramatic.

They had run out of waffle cones, a disappointment for Ewing and a rookie mistake for an ice cream parlour, but the tubs – a seasonal pina colada for my wife and kunefe for me – were still pretty good without. (I thought it was quite an icy concoction which had lost the lovely creaminess of real ice cream, but that's just my opinion of course - TE). I particularly liked the my choice, based on the Middle Eastern sweetmeat where layers of pastry are stuffed with fresh white cheese, topped with pistachios and soaked in fragrant syrup. 

Here, the freshly whipped vanilla ice cream base is mixed with crispy strands of syrup soaked noodles and sprinkled with fresh pistachios. While it may have been better with a cheesy centre, what wouldn't, it was an interesting combination of textures and flavours that made a nice change from chocolate or strawberry

Four winters  Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

As a reward for patiently poking around student halls and army barracks with me all afternoon, I took the Ewing to get a bun for her trunk, or more accurately a upmarket desert from Maitre Choux, French pâtissier  Joakim Prat's exclusive eclair shop in South Kensington.

The Ewing chose the  Pure Arabica Coffee, a glazed choux bun stuffed with coffee flavoured creme patissiere that has both added butter for texture and whipped cream for lightness. No surprises that it was pretty good, the coffee bringing bitter edge to the pillowy, sweet pastry.

As we are currently experiencing an Olympic medal rush in Rio how could I resist the hazelnut and milk chocolate treasure, an eclair that 'has it all'; filled with hazelnut praline and chocolate creme patissiere then coated in chopped hazelnuts and more chocolate and finished with gold dust. Gilding the lily has never tasted so delicious. Now, if chasing concrete and eating and drinking were Olympic sports....

Maitre Choux Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato