Monday, 1 September 2014

Castle Kebab, Elephant and Castle

Alongside her love of noodle soup, Stealth’s favourite food remains a Turkish/ 'Lesbian'ese hybrid - although I haven't known her to turn down much that's edible, in all honesty. This is borne of two factors; firstly the convivial nature of eating; this is a cuisine where you are served lots of different dishes to share (or, in the Ewing's case, not) with those dining with you; and secondly thanks to her father, who often worked and travelled in Turkey and grew to love both the people and the cuisine. 

So much so, in fact that when Stealth’s sister revisited one of her father’s favourite haunts in Istanbul, years after he last been, they remembered him as Mr ‘Three Rice Puddings’ (a moniker I’m secretly rather jealous of).

Happily for her, Castle Kebab, a new Turkish gaff has opened a few minutes’ walk from Stealth’s flat – there is also ‘The Best Kebab’, (ever so) slightly further up the road, but Stealth considers the extra couple of hundred metres an affront, so I haven’t been able to judge the rather bold claim promised by their name.

While Castle also may also struggle to live up to its regal title from the outside, inside, past the strips lights, chilled cabinets stuffed with meat-laden skewers, and row of chairs for people waiting for their takeaway shwarma fix, is a pleasant, if rather basic, dine-in area.

Efes are icy cold and bought quickly. Stealth barely lets the froth settle on her top lip before another one is on its way. They also offer exotic fruit juices and Ayran, a carbonated yoghurt drink, which is supposed to be rather refreshing in the heat - the Ewing’s a big fan, but I still slightly fear the idea of fizzy, fermented milk and stuck to the booze.

A saucer of piuant pickles and some squares of pillowy Turkish bread turned up to to munch on before our starters; a selection of borek (cheese stuffed feta parcels); kisir (bulgur, parsley, and tomato paste); and grilled onions served with spicy turnip juice - this same juice can also be ordered as a beverage on its own; needless to say, we didn't.

Stealth particularly loved the borek; being both crispy and greasy and with a pleasingly molten Feta centre that reminded her of holidays on the Bosporus (or something). I’m not even sure I got to try the kisir – so much for this sharing lark – but it looked very pretty anyway. The onions were good; a mix of sweet and sour with a charred and smoky edge.

Stealth chose her main from one of the trio of changing stews in the window; her pick being an unassuming ut brilliant mix of waxy potato chunks and lamb kofte in a thin tomatoey gravy and topped with grilled tomatoes and green chillies.

I continued with the cop shish - very similar to the standard shish kebab, but with smaller chunks of meat, meaning more surface area for all the delicious crispy crunchy bits. The lamb was superlative, tender, and juicy and smoky; while the tomato flecked bulgar and fluffy rice alongside did the job of providing ballast.

A little too much ballast perhaps, as we got half way through before downing forks, defeated. No matter as the Ewing was a very thankful recipient of the doggy bag I schlepped all the way home, even managing to transport the two pieces of baklava back without too much syrup spillage. 

With our usual over ordering and enthusiastic beer consumption I didn’t have the chance to sample even one of their Sutlac (rice pudding) let alone a trio, but something tells me we’ll be back before very long. 

Saturday, 23 August 2014

Bermondsey Beer Mile

Thankfully, given my unfailing ability to overlook the finer details, I’ve never been much of a completionist. Throughout my life I’ve left a wake of unfinished collections – from baseball cards to He-Man figures, Garbage Pail Kid stickers to Simpson’s box sets. I did have the whole set of the Just William books, but the second one fell into the swimming pool on holiday, and was never quite the same again…

With this scrupulous inattention to detail you may have thought it wouldn’t have bothered me to find out we’d missed one of the stops on my first attempt to crack the Bermondsey Beer Mile. You would have been wrong. But first, let’s go back to the beginning.

The BBM is a collection of five breweries that have sprung up around Bermondsey, starting at the arches in Druid Street and stretching across to the Bermondsey Trading Estate. Yes, it stretches the definition of 1760 yards somewhat, but the Beer Mile and a Half doesn’t have quite the same ring.

Originally I embarked upon the challenge early on a drizzly July Saturday (the only day all the brewery's tap rooms are currently open) with my faithful accomplice, the magical Stealth. A fortifying walk up East Street market and we were ready for our first drink, at the Kernel Brewery in Dockley Road. There are many different theories on the best ways to do the trail, but we decided to hit the centre point as Kernel are the busiest and also close the earliest (9.00-2.00).

The Kernel were the first of the new wave of brewers to set up around these parts and quickly became a huge success with owner and brewer, Evin O'Riordain, being awarded the British Guild of Beer Writers Brewer of the Year 2011. This success doesn’t come without cost, hence their early closing as they struggle to contain the crowds of thirsty south East Londoners who cram into the railways arches every Saturday morning.

The Kernel has been a favourite since my first visit a couple of years ago; from their hard hitting pale ales and IPAs, flavoured with a variety of different hops; to their Christmassy stouts, a favourite of the Ewing; to their quaffable table beer. In the past I've I've sunk a lot of their range, with the highlight being the night I turned up at Stealth's house to find she had filled the bathtub full of bottles bought fresh from the brewery that morning.

One I haven’t yet tried was their London Sour, and here it was on tap with added raspberry. A (almost) healthy fruit-filled start to the day – we hadn't had any breakfast yet – and not too full-on at 3.6%. This was a fabulous beer, fresh tart and tangy, balanced with a hint of sweetness. A great warm weather drink and very refreshing. Stealth had the Export Stout, a much bolder brew at 8.2%; a bruiser of a beer with plenty of chocolate, leather and coffee flavours with a creamy finish; another cracker.

Next stop was Partizan; tucked away in the arches in Almond road. Thankfully a very helpful guy in a hard hat appeared just in time to show us the way through the hoardings when we feared we were lost in the midst of an abandoned building site.

Partizan’s approach, like its surroundings, is very stripped back. They offer a range of beers on keg, alongside a selection of bottles which are all advertised on pleasingly ramshackle, handwritten cardboard signs. In contrast to their signage, the bottle’s labels are pretty damn snazzy and we picked up a lemon and thyme flavoured saison for the Ewing to drink later.

Stealth’s request for a recommendationwas met with a rather blank look – I’m not sure everyone is ready for her mumbled enthusiasm so early in the morning, so I stepped in to choose her a ginger saison, knowing her love on Jamaican ginger beer. A decent enough drop, but somewhat lacking the fiery flavour she was hoping for. I turned to the dark side with a saaz, made, unsurprisingly, with saaz hops and tasting like a light fruitcake mixed with stout, a very agreeable combination.

The best part of our visit was when Stealth enlisted a poor man next to us, quietly trying to enjoy his pint, to take a photo. While I think he may have fancied himself as a bit of a David Bailey, I think he may have imbibed one too many shandies. Still, at least there was one snap with our heads still intact, so points for that.

Next up was a trawl around the Bermondsey trading estate, where another very nice man we hosing down his work van downed tools and actually lead us to Fourpure (who said anything about unfriendly Londoners), the furthest Brewery on the trail.

The staff here were super friendly and enthusiastic, especially the lady who served us and offered to split a schooner of the Roux Brew – a 5.6% Belgian Ale - between two different glasses before coming over to our table tell us a bit more about its providence and ingredients, including orange and coriander seeds.

The beer was originally brewed by Fourpure head brewer, John Driebergen, as part of a competition organised by the London Brewer’s Alliance, which saw 12 London breweries battle it for the title of “Roux brew”, a special “house” beer paired to be with a seasonal menu at the Le Gavroche, Roux at Parliament Square and the Landau restaurants. Fourpure were victorious and this very tasty beer was the result.

I don’t know if it’s still on tap, but if so get down and fill yer boots while it’s still summer. The rest of their beers are decent too, and nice and portable in their distinctive cans, we even had time to enjoy a Amber ale (toasty, malty, touch of caramel) and an IPA (piney, spice, grapefuit) The brewery and tap room are the largest on the tour, if you don’t fancy a drink you can always call in for a game of ping pong , there was even a hen party being shown around when we visited.

At this point the tour took a slightly random turn; buoyed by beer we headed back towards the Druid Street arches and what we though was the last stop. A comical route ensued, lead by Stealth holding Googlemaps on my dying phone (hers had already expired), aloft and leading us in concentric circles Camus would have been proud of.

Eventually we found ourselves back at Marquis of Wellington, a stalwart of a pub featuring of good old fashioned fizzy lager and a no nonsense ‘proper’ bar staff. We decamped for a much needed pint of lime and soda – something which I originally felt a bit tight ordering, not wanting to see these fancy upstart weekend only tap rooms usurping the proper working class gaffs of old, until I was charged a fiver for two glasses of squash. Well, I hear you say, it is London…

Still, it’s worth a visit, just to have some good old fashioned banter with the barmaid and assorted clientele who were interested to hear about our boozy morning thus far - banter which lead me to discovering the flaw in our plan; we had walked straight past the penultimate stop.

At this point the logical workings of a sober mind would have would have concluded we should backtrack on ourselves (anathema to both Stealth and I) to grab a quick pint at Brew By Numbers, the stop we had missed, and come back for a final fling across the road.

But, staring into the bottom of our glasses of weak lime cordial, we knew it was a brewery too far. The heat, our feet and general levels of inebriation being what they were we reasoned with ourselves that we had gone off piste, that the Marquis of Wellington was our fourth stop and it didn’t really matter…

Decision made we popped over the road to our last stop, Anspach and Hobday/Bullfinch brewers. The former are a Kickstarter funded set up with the latter sharing their brewing equipment.

Beered out, we went with a Jensen gin and tonic - distilled around thee corner, they also have their own bar, too if you fancy popping in for a cocktail - and a trio of the Ansbach and Hobday brews to take home for the Ewing; an IPA, the Porter and the Smoked Brown. (Sadly the paper bag they were supplied in made it as far as London Bridge before the former two bottle met their fate with the pavement. Luckily the surviving Smoked Brown - a brown ale made with smoked barley - went down very well.)

Mission accomplished, or so we thought, we headed back to Stealth's for a little siesta and a couple of Alka Seltza. It was only on reviewing our adventures later that day that I realised that I wouldn't be able to rest without visiting the final piece in the brewery puzzle. (This was, of course, metaphorical, as I had already been asleep for the most of the afternoon.). I knew that, unlike my abandoned Batman Topps trading cards and my half finished Esso Italia 90 coin collection, I would have to return to complete the Bermondsey brew house set.

Luckily the Ewing was the second willing accomplice who agreed to wander around South London with me drinking beer and getting lost, and we headed back a fortnight later for doughnuts and ham and cocktails (see the forthcoming Bump Caves blog for that exciting installment) and, finally, a visit to Brew By Numbers, found down in the arches on Enid Street.

Brew by Number’s beers are named after a very simple premise. The first number relates to the style of the beer, while the second number indicates the incarnation e.g. what hops/brewing methods or flavourings are used. E.g. the number 4 denotes their Berliner Weisse, which is available as 1 – classic; 2 – double strength and 3 – lime versions.

Shamefully, after all the fuss, I'm not even sure what I ended up drinking, but I'm (fairly) confident it was the Session IPA, hopped with both chinook and amarillo, for a hoppy punch at a low (4.5%) ABV. From the colour I know the Ewing went with the Original Porter, her customary favoured style of beer.

Brews in hand - they also offer rather good looking scotch eggs, which even as an avowed egg avoider I was tempted by. Has anyone every come up with a plausible substitution for the egg bit? – we decamped outside to enjoy our drinks in the sunshine. 

One the oddest bits about drinking here came with the positioning of the lovely Welsh chap by the entrance, who seemed to have been given the rather thankless role of telling people that they had to sit within the packing crate seating area. Possibly something a sign, or even some rope, could have solved far more efficiently - but working with the public myself, I know that signs are merely put there to be ignored.

First rounds sunk, we went back to the arches for a beer at Ansbach and Hobday/Bullfinch to try the beers straight from the tap. Initially I was rather discombobulated, as they had moved their keg taps from straight ahead as you enter, to being positioned on the right hand wall. Thankfully everything else was present and correct, including their sign for their Mr Barrick's pie and pickle, which I still haven’t sampled but I’m planning to make third visit lucky. They also get extra brownie points on account of the Folk implosion’s Mechanical Man playing and the fact the barman was wearing a Minnesota Twins shirt.

To drink I had the Bullfinch Hopocalypse, a pretty easy going 6% pale ale that currently features Zythos, Mosaic and Galaxy hops.  The Ewing picked, after much deliberation to the amusement of the barman, the Smoked Brown she had enjoyed in the bottle after my previous visit.  We also had a bottle of Bullfinch’s Dapper - celebration of the Great British Hop brewed in the style of an American IPA – in honour of the very well dressed, but sadly absent, Stealth.

There was even time for another beery selfie by the arches. Firstly, to let Stealth know that the trail was finally complete, and secondly to remind myself of my own achievements. Not lest the facts the next morning - after several more beers and quite a few cocktails - should seem little more than an alcoholic haze. (They were, but that’s another blog…)

Sunday, 17 August 2014

Pizza (and Proms) - Homeslice, Covent Garden

While I’m not a huge one for life-affirming mantras,  or ‘inspiring’ memes on Instagram, one lesson – taught to me by Madonna at the end of the Human Nature video – I like to live by is ‘absolutely no regrets’.

While not normally a hard thing to abide – this lapsed Catholic very much lacks the guilt gene – I had to struggle to remember it upon waking after our evening with the Pet Shop Boys at the Late Night Proms. Suddenly all those double G&Ts to slake our thirst, followed by a boozy late night roam through St James and past Buck House to wave at Liz, followed by a few more cans of cold Six Point IPA we found back at Stealth’s house seemed a very bad idea indeed…

Auspiciously, just at the moment I feared I might never be able to sit upright with my eyes open simultaneously, the ice cream chimes could be heard across the Newington Estate.  Moments later the magical Stealth had raced outside to grab a brace of 99s, and even deigned to let the Ewing and I eat them in bed.

With sugar safely on board – rarely has whipped fat and air seemed more welcomed - things didn’t seem quite as hopeless; suddenly the lure of more carbs and some hair of the dog began to look very appealing indeed. A cold shower and a cup of tea later and we were back out pounding the – very, very hot and sticky - tarmac of London Town in search of further sustenance.

In view of Stealth having a date to keep in Soho later that evening, we hit the centre of town, conveniently forgetting the horrors of the Big Smoke in the midst of a sultry summer that we had experienced just the previous evening. Thankfully, as with our noodle exploits the night before, braving the hordes was worth it as I had one goal in mind: securing beer and pizza.

Our destination was Homeslice, hidden away in the bright and busy warren of Neal’s Yard – alongside the eponymous cheese and natural remedy purveyors - tucked between Shorts Gardens and Monmouth Street.

As with nearby neighbours, Pizza Pilgrims, Homeslice started out with a mobile oven, this time situated in an East London brewery. After a couple of nomadic years they found a permanent home in the West, and rather a nice one it is;  wooden benches and exposed pipes and brickwork are all present and correct, alongside the jewel in the crown, the wood fired pizza oven. It’s cool, fun and (very) loud.

Orders are taken on an ipad, obviously, and we start with frosty tankards of Camden Helles, served on tap alongside glasses of Prosecco, and pretty good value for a restaurant in Covent Garden (or pretty much anywhere in Lahndan now days) at £4.50 a pop.

Rambling aside alert: While it may start to show my age, I remember my aunt buying me four and a half pound pints at the Rock Garden, just around the corner, when I was an impoverished student. This was over fifteen years ago, now, when the average pint cost £1.97, and I was at once both in awe of the cost and faintly cheated that tasted more of fizzy regret than sparkling ambrosia.

There are also over-sized bottles of wine available in the full trio of colours; drink what you like and pay by every centimetre glugged, the remaining vino measured out with an old fashioned wooden ruler by your waiter on requesting the bill.

Unsurprisingly Pizzas are the main draw; in fact the only draw. There are no sides, starters or puds to muddy the waters, just pies, whole or by the slice, from a regularly changing list chalked up on a board by the entrance.

Choices are different without being too outré. Expect to see combos like scallops with peanut, haggis and Ogleshield cheese or oxtail and horseradish alongside more familiar favourites such as the classic Caprese or aubergines and courgettes with artichoke. All slices – usually three choices – are £4, all pies £20. If you think that’s a lot of dough to drop on some dough, check the diameter – these babies are the size of a BMX wheel.

We went for a half and half split between a pizza Bianca of white anchovies, chard and Berkswell and a red pie topped with pulled pork, radish, pea shoots and mint pesto.

Everything was spot on; the crust both blistered and charred and floppy and chewy in all the right places and the toppings artfully placed to fill every bite without being sparse. Fortuitously, in the intrests of having to share, I preferred the fish and greens, with the salty sheep's cheese and tang of lemon while the Ewing liked the  porky side, especially the crunch of radish and the sprightly mint pesto. Meanwhile Stealth just got stuck into the beer while trying to snaffle all the nice crusty bits when our backs were turned.

Homeslice on Urbanspoon

Of course, I couldn't omit a mention of the wonderful PSB, debuting their Man From the Future, a musical tribute to the great Alan Turing, at the Roal Albert Hall. A fabulous performance of a bittersweet story; we even bumped in to the girls from the future, too...

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

'Noodle Bar', Leicester Square (and some Unbirthday Cake)

There are three hundred and sixty-four days when you might get un-birthday presents, and only one for birthday presents, you know. Lewis Carroll

A couple of weeks ago, as a precursor to Stealth's unbirthday trip to the Proms, I decided to treat her for dinner at a cheap, unlicensed and un-air-conditioned dive in the heart of tacky tourist central. No one can say I don’t push the boat out.

There was a brief moment, when I was trying to, literally, push my way from Piccadilly Circus to Leicester Square, when the mercury was still hitting 30 at six in the evening and most of London had decided to descend upon Theatreland, where I questioned my own sanity on suggesting such an idea.

But, despite the crowds and the heat and inauspicious frontage of the place – just look for the sign that says ‘noodles’ – I knew that at the back, past the trays of luminous sweet and sour and chow mein and fug of steaming dumplings, that Stealth’s spicy noodle urge would soon be sated.

Typically, despite the address and link to Google maps being provided, Stealth had decided to trust her own sense of direction and was waiting at the other noodle bar opposite the other entrance of Leicester Square tube. Something that was comical when recounted later, but didn’t seem quite as amusing as we were sublimating on the pavement.

Troops successfully reconvened, we were hustled by the staff waiting on the pavement outside to the cramped seating area at the back and presented with, helpfully illustrated, laminated menus. There's plenty to chose from, but ignore all the standard glop that sits in trays under heat lamps, the handmade noodles are the real draw here.

These noodles come in two varieties, la mian, the thin, hand pulled variety, and Dao Xiao Mian, which are shaved from a big ball of dough, wrapped round a stick, straight into the steaming stockpot. Both these types can be ordered in soup, dry style or fried, and then topped with various meat, fish and vegetables.

From the little ledge along the side of the restaurant, where we were perched, we had a prime seat to one of the best shows in town, watching enthralled at the lengths of oil dough being expertly twisted and tossed into the air until they split into tiny, glistening threads that were dispatched straight into the bubbling broth.

Minutes later and our steaming bowls were in front of us; hot and sour beef with la mian for Stealth, Dan Dan noodles with la mian for the Ewing and crispy pork chop with fried Dao Xiao for me.
The la mian were springy and toothsome, just like a good noodle should be. Stealth’s soup was pleasingly piquant, full of strips of tender meat and greens while the Ewing’s Dan Dan rendition had a flavoursome broth topped with plenty of porky, nutty sauce.

My platter - literally, a vast metal tray- was piled with crisp cabbage and onions and chunks of juicy pork chop and studded throughout with comforting noodle chunks that were chewy and stodgy, in the best possible way.

Noodle mains are decently priced, between £ 6-£7.50, and the portions are gargantuan. For the adventurous there is also a huge menu of side dishes that includes various preparations of tripe, liver and tongue alongside cucumber served with pig’s ears, and stomach of duck in red oil.

We also ordered a plate of steamed dumplings stuffed with pork and Chines chives – superfluous, but rather forced on us by our brusque, but amusing waiter – which were very good.  The handmade wrappers encasing the centre were delicate and light with the inside being fragrantly allium-spiked and beautifully juicy.

It isn’t licenced, they don’t offer tap water, service is comically curt and pushy and there is barely room to swing the noodles, let alone anything else, but Zhengzhong Lanzhou Lamian Noodle Bar has a curious charm as well as damn fine noodles.

Lanzhou on Urbanspoon
To round off the un-birthday treat, our final stop was intended to be the Golden Gate Desert House on Shaftsbury Avenue but time dictated we had to Go West (thanks to Stealth’s boss) to the Royal Albert Hall. No matter, as we had the chance to go back the following evening before returning home, although sadly sans Stealth this time.

Again, it’s not a fancy gaff, although the elaborate range of cakes and gateaux’s in the window at the front and the chilled cabinet inside are properly swanky. The Ewing went for the chocolate mousse layered sponge, complete with strawberry frog topper who was sadly blinded in an unfortunate accident on the trip home – while I picked the impressive pandan cake.

I love the flavour of pandan, and this, with the layers of lurid green jelly, fluffy sponge and coconut cream, was like a rather exotic children’s tea party. The Ewing pronounced her cake as ‘light as air’ although you’ll have to take her word for it as not much remained for me to corroborate.

The bright purple taro mousse cake also looked particularly intriguing and is top of the list for a return visit, They also stock a small range of pork, cheese, spring onion or sausage stuffed savoury buns, lotus cakes and moon cakes as well as dramatic, many layered, cream and fruit topped celebration cakes for all occasions.

Golden Gate Dessert House on Urbanspoon

Still sweltering in the sultry City heat wave our last stop was Boba Jam, two doors down from the Desert House. Here they serve a small variety of South east Asian/Chinese deserts – mostly involving strange flavoured fruit, beans and seeds – and a selection of savoury snacks, but the biggest lure is the range of Boba tea and fruit jelly drinks.

We played it safe with the Hong Kong style – a strong black tea with condensed milk – served with black tapioca pearls and lashings of ice. Everyone knows that you can’t have an un-birthday without tea and cake, and this was the perfect finale. Here’s to Stealth’s next 363 un-special days.

Boba Jam on Urbanspoon