Monday, 26 January 2015

Rams, Kenton

Dear old Grandad’s taken a tumble and as a consequence has been banged up at the NHS’s pleasure for the last few weeks. While it’s unlikely many of us would ever choose to be in hospital, the care he’s been receiving - at Northwick Park, the auspicious site of my own birth, and latterly Central Middlesex - has been first rate and even the (notorious) catering has had the thumbs up. If the Ewing’s ever admitted she’s hoping it will be on a Thursday, for corned beef and pickle sandwiches followed by jerk chicken and sponge pudding. 

The frequent dashes made up the Western Avenue have meant things have been a bit slack on the domestic front, so luckily there are plenty of decent choices for dinner nearby when visiting hours are over.

Fortuitously Northwick Park is a stone’s throw from Kenton, the home of Ram’s Pure Vegetarian, and somewhere I’ve wanted to visit for a while. While most things with veggie in the title may scream of mung beans and tofu, here you can be assured of plenty of deep frying, liberal helpings of cheese and ghee, and cold beers to wash it all down with.

Speaking of the beer, Kingfisher is £2.00 a bottle, and only £3.80 for a 660ml bomber. So I had two. The Ewing enjoyed a cup of sweet, spicy chai.

The menu is bewilderingly large and is split into many different sections reflecting various different types of Indian cuisine. These include Surti Khajana (a state in Gujarat), Mumbai Chatpata (classic street food such as idli and dosa)  - Panjabi  dishes - South Indian Dishes and Indian Mirch (an Guajarati word meaning pepper or chilli) Masala dishes - This is then subdivided into starters and mains, with a few extra accompaniments, rice and daal dishes and Hindustani Breads thrown in for good measure.

To kick things off we had a plate of Pani Puri, the crisp shells being served with a lurid, spiced potato and chickpea mixture and a thin tamarind chutney. Preparing these is almost as much fun as eating them. Crack open the top of the shell -rather like a boiled egg - stuff with the potato mixture, top with a spoonful of tamarind liquid and down in one before it all disintergrates. A great start.

Of course, we were obliged to order a dosa. This time the Mysore version, the crisp, lacy crepe being stuffed with spicy garlic and chilli masala paste, before being folded and served with a decent vegetable sambal and an unmemorable coconut chutney (well I liked it - TE).

Next came a plate of Banana Methi Bhajiya - banana and fenugreek pakoras served with two different chutneys. These were the Ewing’s favourite dish of the day, the sweet, slightly spongy fried nuggets pairing well with the grassiness (a bit too 'compost' like for my tastes) of the green coriander chutney and the tang of the red tomato.

I have recently been flicking back through Simon Hopkinson’s latest book, Cook, and have been tempted by the rather 70’s simplicity of a recipe for a tomato curry, with the whole fruit simmered in a delicately spiced sauce; this craving lead to me choosing the, curious sounding, Tomato Sev.

While I normally associate tomato in a curry with the brackish, metallic and smoky flavours of Northern India and Pakistan, this was clean, light and tangy with a searing heat from a good thwack of fresh chilli. I expected the sev (chickpea noodles) to have been sprinkled on top of the finished dish, but they has been simmered into the curry, giving it a pleasing, if slightly odd, texture and a nutty back note.

The Vengan na Ravaiya, a peanut and gram flour stuffed aubergine that's a a Surti specialty, was equally fiery. The slippery, finger sized, baby baingan being simmered in a rich, oily tomato and onion sauce that reminded me of one of my favourite curries from Tayyabs (minus the lentils).

Our final main, from the Punjab, was the the Ewing’s favourite ‘cheesy peas’. This version of muttar paneer was rich and soporific while still showcasing the delicate sweetness of the legumes. The paneer, always a favourite, was pleasingly bouncy and with a smoky edge from a tumble in the hot kahari before being added to the sauce.

From the Hindustani breads section shared a Puran Poli, a Guajarati bread usually eaten during festivals and times of celebration and a speciality of the restaurant. The standard puri is stuffed with jaggery (palm sugar) and daal before being fried in ghee. Unsurprisingly, it was exceptionally good, if very rich, the sweet, butteriness providing a foil for the heat and astringency of the vegetable curries.

Tempted as we were by the homemade pistachio kulfi and the butter and sugar laden pastries and sweetmeats that sold from their adjoining sweet shop, dessert was far more restrained and refreshing, coming in the form of fresh mango and blueberries bought from the Lebanese grocers a little further up the road. And whilst the fruit might not have counteracted all our previous dinnertime transgressions, hopefully it will go some way towards keeping us out of the inpatients.

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Cupcakes, Carciofi Fritti and Capitalism

As has been established in the previous post, my way of dealing with any lingering New Year malaise is not the gym and Dry January, but more carb-loading and pub crawls. In a concession to the fact we had been slowly vegetating in Elephant and Castle, with just a box set of Getting On, take away noodles and modular origami for company, Stealth and the Ewing acceded to my demands to leave the flat and even allowed me to choose wherever I wanted to go for lunch.

What I wanted was pizza, and while the local Italian gaff in Walworth was closed - thwarting me for the second time and dashing my hopes for an Americana topped with homemade chips and sausage – Pizza Pilgrims (fairly) new second branch stepped in to satiate my need (with the potential for cupcakes from the recently opened Crumbs and Doilies next door proving somewhat of an added bonus).

After a sightseeing adventure on the number 12 bus - over Westminster Bridge, past the Houses of Parliament and around Trafalgar Square – followed by a dice with death on Regent Street we eventually reached our final destination of Carnaby’s new Kingly court complex, ’ a three story al-fresco food and dining destination in the heart of London's West End’.

This branch of PP is also a Friggitoria alongside a pizzeria, an exotic (and faintly erotic) sounding way of saying that they deep fry things, too. These things include carciofi fritti (fried artichokes) which were hot and crisp but a little underpowered in the seasoning department and some nice little arancini rosso, the breadcrumb covered tomatoey rice cradling a molten smoked mozzarella core.

Greedy as we are, we sadly had to miss out on trying the pizza fritta, which, as the name suggests are ‘pizza fritters’ featuring a deep fried calzone, stuffed with a variety of filling – and the deep fried Italian mac’n’cheese with Parmesan, beef ragu & buffalo mozzarella (you didn't tell me that was on the menu, I would have had it - TE). A mini tragedy, but there’s always next time and I would like to try and see in 2016 without dangerously high cholesterol levels.

The main draw, of course, is the pizzas, made in the Neapolitan style. These tend towards the ‘soupy’ side in the middle (which the Ewing doesn’t rate) with beautifully chewy, puffy and charred crusts (which Stealth does). I think they make pretty great pie, although the floppy base (fired the traditional way for 30-60 seconds at fearsome temperatures) means they are a proper knife and fork job.

Stealth, who can be seen above modelling her dinner, chose a pizza topped with N'duja, the fiery Calabrian salami. While I used the advantage of eating pie with the Ewing to create a red/white hybrid Frankenpizza. This time we shared a Smoked Neapolitan; a Margarita with smoked anchovies, capers, black olives & oregano, and the day's special pie, La Mimosa; a porchetta, fior di latte, sweetcorn, Parmesan, double cream and basil pizza bianca. Both were good, but the La Mimosa just shaded it, sweetcorn haters be damned.

As always, I was too full to contemplate the Nutella and ricotta stuffed pizza ring (one day...) but the meal was nicely rounded off with shots of Sohocello; a Pizza Pilgrim and Chase Distillery collaboration that sees potato spirit distilled by the latter being infused with Amalfi lemons. I wouldn't like to say if it was as good as my beloved Ewing's clemencello (made at Christmas with clementines), but it is rather nice. 

Pizza Pilgrims on Urbanspoon

As promised, we called into the Crumbs and Doilies new Soho store after lunch to stock up on some cupcakey goodness. Alongside regular cupcakes they also have mini cakes in all the regular flavours alongside a large cake of the day, available by the slice (see below), and a regularly changing flapjack/brownie/cookie type offering. All goodies are baked upstairs on the premises and there's also coffee from Grind, teas by Suki Tea and sodas from All Good. Don't listen to anyone who tells you cupcakes are over without trying one of these first.

There then followed crisps and stout, eaten in the English fashion with the bags split and laid in the middle for sharing – followed by more beer and discussions over the difference between lightly salted and ready salted (and how many disgruntled customers it had taken for the barman to think it necessary to state multiple times they were LIGHTLY SALTED - TE) and the evil/genius of capitalism – a topic that it is wiser left after several pints of Brewdog’s, very tasty, Red A.M Ale (surely a socialist drink, judging by the colour).

I also still had the delights of my Crumbs and Doilies haul – featuring another red offering, perfect for the Marx in me - for when I got home. Alongside the doorstep of Red Velvet cake – enormous in both size and sugar content sweet and not for sharing (sorry, the Ewing) and there were also a salted caramel pretzel number, a banoffee and, my favourite, a cookies and cream cupcake studded with Oreos.

When the (terribly middle-class) Borough sourdough had all been eaten, as was famously (not) said by Marie-Antoinette: Qu'ils mangent de la brioche.

Monday, 12 January 2015

January Blues

For last year's words belong to last year's language
And next year's words await another voice.
― T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets

There’s something relentlessly dull about January. All the on the wagon hashtags and pictures of kale smoothies and running shoes that flood social media. As well as the physical interventions, usually staged after a solid month of eating Quality Street and mainlining Baileys in front of the Christmas tree, I also find there’s a horrible mental malaise to overcome too. While it’s the perfect opportunity to look forward to the future, as you get older it seems harder to see past the past.

In an attempt to conquer this malaise, and in sheer defiance of abstinence I started 2015 with a healthy dose of alcohol, salt and saturated fat in the form of the limited edition return of the McRib, washed down with a bottle of Lanson that had been overlooked at New Year. A promising start, but I still needed a little fillip to perk up what had dawned as a particularly grim and rainy Saturday morning, even the view of the Shard had disappeared from Stealth’s balcony. This little piggy was going to Borough Market (with a reluctant Ewing trailing behind).

After a row about finding the bus stop, then a row at the bus stop and another disagreement after alighting from the bus, the restoration of matrimonial bliss (Stealth had wisely stayed at home napping) demanded a doughnut. Not just any doughnuts but those baked at the Bread Ahead Bakery - founded by Matt Jones of Flour Power and Justin Gellately formerly of St John fame. The very doughy orbs that spurt their custard and jam obscenely over my Twitter feed every weekend.

It seems that the apprentice has indeed surpassed the master as the doughnuts we tried – mine the honeycomb topped and salted caramel custard-stuffed and the Ewing’s cacao nib-dusted chocolate velvet – were both bigger and fluffier than the recent St John incarnations I’ve eaten. While I still appreciate the simplicity of the originals, there is something pretty special about these pretenders to London's doughnut throne

Passing time with a couple of these is probably the most fun you can have with your clothes on a Saturday morning, although with your clothes off it may be even better (watch out, though, for any errant sugar in the cracks). Mercifully for everybody else we stayed fully clothed, although with the thick fog still descending I’m not sure anyone would have noticed either way.

Next it was time to placate the Ewing, and what better way than with a bag of Artisan Du Chocolat's mis-shapes washed down with a Notes latte (see my Belgrave, Leeds post for my love-in with their lamingtons). I've got a soft spot for ADC's chocolates, especially the original salted caramels and the iridescent pistachio paste pearls, and these grab bags of the poor old rejects that didn't quite make the cut are a real bargain. 

Because the Ewing had both forgotten her hat and gloves and was nursing the hangover from a bad ankle sprain from before Christmas (as well as the vestiges of a hangover of the more traditional kind), I thought it infinitely wise to leave the plethora of warm eating places with plenty of seating around Borough and make her traverse the foggy streets of Bermondsey to Jose, Jose Pizarro’s bijou tapas and sherry place.

In a benevolent stroke of luck a couple of stools at the bar opened almost as we arrived and soon we were drinking cold glasses of Estrella Damm accompanied by a plate of hand carved pig - and not just any pig, but ‘the most excellent Maldonado Ibérico bellota pig’. It was lovely, of course, but the heathen in me still has a lot of love for the leg of cured ham from Lidl that I spend all Christmas surreptitiously standing by the fridge scoffing.

Alongside we enjoyed some punchy bocerones , with a gum tingling dose of vinegar, an ethereal spinach tortilla that just missed oozing in the middle and some of the finest, paprika dusted, crisp calamari fresh from the fryer. A crust or two of bread, a perfect sop for some of the fishy juices, was sadly absent, but they do serve very good pam amb tomate if you’re in the need of a few carbs.

Jose isn’t especially cheap - the price of small plate eating can sky rocket swiftly, especially if you’re making use of their Spanish wine and sherry list - but as I sat there on a leaden January afternoon, holding court with my lovely and long suffering wife with a plate of pig and glass of beer at my side, I couldn’t have felt more satisfied.

José on Urbanspoon

These little piggies soon went back to market, this time to fetch an indoor picnic for Stealth (who, in a fortuitous stroke of luck had meanwhile ordered a Japanese takeaway, meaning more for us to take back and snaffle later).

From the almost overwhelming section of cheese and charcuterie we chose a heady mixture of 15 month aged Comte, a hunk of Altesse des Vosges - a washed cheese, somewhere between a Reblochon and a Munster from the Lorraine -and a very nice donkey salami (well, it was just after Christmas) that the Ewing refused to eat. There was also a huge veg box, -with beefsteak tomatoes, frisee, peppers and fennel – picked up for two quid and a giant avocado for a pound.

Top prize went to the loaf of the Borough White from the Flour Station. Anyone who thinks that four quid is too much for flour and water needs to try some of this. A few slices, with its smoky, burnished crust and a wonderfully chewy, light crumb, slathered with butter and the stinky, sticky Altesse des Voges and eaten while tucked up in bed made the perfect welcome back home to our empty house after all the festive excitement. A very happy New Year indeed.

Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Festive Fun, St Albans

Anyone (or the one) who has read this blog with any regularity will know my perfect Sunday roast criteria; red meat should be rare, white meat not dry; yorkies should be both crisp and squidgy, there should be plenty of suitable condiments; a dish of bronzed cauliflower cheese and roast parsnips. Always roast parsnips.

For our lunch at The Fighting Cocks, I wasn’t really expecting any of the above. For a start I had chosen it primarily because I knew it and it was central, meaning we could go for a wander around the lake beforehand and Christmas market by the cathedral afterwards; and while I was curious about its claim to be the oldest pub in England, it also made me more doubtful it would actually be any good.

Unusually, however, I was completely unperturbed about the idea of tough beef and lumpy Bisto as the real reason for our visit was to see the lovely Maz, wedding witness, and the less lovely Stealth (only joking Mrs, P). When you’ve already got a good amount of juicy gossip to digest you tend to care far less about what’s actually on your plate.

One way the Cocks immediately impressed was with the snack menu, a list so appealing I had to send a picture to my crisp fiend sister, banished in almost completely decent potato-snack free Sydney. Any pub that offers Quavers, peanuts, posh crisps and pickled Onion Monster Munch is already onto a winner.

They also had Great Heck Treasure, on cask – a brewery whose beers I’ve recently been enjoying – and this thumping IPA was no different. Perfect with our selection of pizza flavoured crisps and pork scratchings. Whilst Stealth got stuck in to her first of five gins and everyone else battened down the hatches for the long afternoon ahead…

By now I’ve accepted that ordering roast beef in a pub means an assumption of overcooked (at least for my liking). This is not always based on surroundings, previous experience or even prices – downward of a tenner and expects sisal carpet- but by employing the pessimist is never disappointed approach. Grey beef? Well, that was to be expected. Rare beef? Well, what a lovely surprise.

I don’t know if it was because we were eating early, whether it was because we specified ‘as rare as you’ve got’ or if the Cocks just always nails the crowning glory of an Englishman’s Sunday dinner, but the meat was spot on. As, indeed, was everything else from the roasties to the yorkie, via the blob of fearsomely hot horseradish adorning each plate. The belly, with its shard of crackling (no, Maz didn’t share, despite a pleading look or two) went down equally well.

After a surfeit of gin, another beer, two - surprisingly poky with the festive spirit (there was certainly some in there…) - mulled wines and the unbridled excitement of seeing the picture that hung in my childhood bathroom in their loos, it was time for my promised reward for being so well behaved, a visit to the, snappily monikered, Beer Shop on the London Road.

Like the Chesham Brewery Shop – I’m seeing a theme with the names here – they offer a range of four or five keg beers to drink in or take away, alongside a big selection of bottles and cans. Stealth and I raced ahead and got in a round of Moor Brewery Revival (big hops, low ABV, very nice), while the drivers lingered behind, making do with digesting more gossip.

The range of beers here is pretty special; there are local beers from breweries including Leighton Buzzard and Tring, alongside a good UK showing, including a vast selection of Marbles, Buxton and Dark Star as well as a whole wall of well-chosen Belgians and Americans, with the odd Kiwi and Dane thrown in for good measure.

A few quid lighter and with a haul including Flying Dog Gonzo porter, Green Flash Triple IPA (an invalubale help when wrapping presents the following week) and a bottle of Sorachi Ace for Stealth’s New Year celebrations, we decamped for a delayed pudding, in the form of an ‘ultimate’ hot chocolate from the Hatch stall at Christmas market in the Cathedral gardens.

While not normally a big fan of hot chocolate, preferring my cocoa in cakes, cookies or ice creams, and despite the absence of mini marshmallows on top, this was perfect sugary salve for frozen fingers and burgeoning hangovers; providing the metaphorical (and literal) whipped cream that topped a lovely day.

While I take a break to sit about eating Toblerone and drinking sherry in my dressing gown, here's to a very Merry Christmas to all. Eat, drink and tolerate your in-laws and I'll be back deliberating, cogitating and digesting some more in the New Year.

Saturday, 20 December 2014

XT Brewery and the Eight Bells

Saturday sun came early one morning
In a sky so clear and blue
Saturday sun came without warning
So no-one knew what to do

Well, that last line wasn’t completely true. When the winter sun shines then what better than a brewery visit to stock up on festive supplies, followed by a boozy afternoon at the pub.

The brewery in question was XT, based at Notley farm way up in the wilds of North Bucks. We normally manage to make at least one visit at this time of year, as our Christmas guests have become rather partial to their beers; and I don’t mind a drop, either.

While our last visit was so foggy you could barely see past the pint in your hand, this time we were blessed with one of those glorious December mornings – brilliant blue skies, a crisp frost on the green fields – that made driving through the chocolate box villages, with their thatched cottages and wood smoke curling from the chimneys, an utter joy (save for the resurfacing argument about who had last seen the Cure CD that I wanted to listen on the drive, and the bit where the Ewing clipped someone’s wing mirror in one of the aforementioned  villages).

To get us in the mood we started off with half pints (quite the bargain at pound each) of their standard Xmas brew, the 25, a decent enough red AltBier. We also tried the 8, a rich dark beer brewed four different malts. The good weather meant we could sup these out in the sunshine, although it also meant the Ewing spied their sign offering free broken pallets alongside a help yourself hop compost heap – although I suppose further repeat visits will have to involve the purchase of beer, too.

As well as brewing beers under the XT moniker, they also offer a range of Animal beers, which allow them to experiment with a few more quirky flavour combinations. This time they had the Christmas-themed Gobble on cask (this version especially cellared in oak barrels), a rich dark stout brewed with roasted cacao nibs and a hint of orange, a beer the Ewing (and I) was so fond of we also picked up a two litre bottle straight from the keg for drinking later.

Next up was a visit to the Eight Bells - a pretty pub dating from 1607 in the nearby village of Long Crendon and perennial star in Midsommer Murders  - where I was very much looking forward to a long and lazy lunch and a prime spot in front of the log fire; circumstances which, alongside the Saturday papers made a very warm (literally) welcome. They also had the XT’s 25 on cask, so I settled for another pint of that.

Starters we decent enough; the crab pate was great, but the bread to crustacean ratio was a little off (too many carbs not enough crab) while the advertised and anticipated smoked garlic aioli was either absent or (possibly?) the dressing on the side salad.

The duck rillettes, served with granary bread, befell the opposite problem of too little bread – clearly not really a problem, who minds scooping up tender shreds of confit meat straight from plate to mouth? While the duck was nice enough the clementine marmalade, freshly made in the kitchen, was outstanding; a perfect bittersweet counterpoint to the fatty meat.

Sadly the mains fell as flat as the pizzas. Normally pub pizza is best avoided, but a whole section dedicated to their thin crust Italian bases and seasonal toppings including blue cheese and mushrooms and the ‘Porky Pig’, including chorizo, black pudding and pulled pork, were too tempting to turn down.

While the toppings -especially the glorious black pudding and mushrooms - were good, the base was far too thick and pallid and the intriguing ‘pork veloute’, replacing the familiar metallic tang of tomato, just bland. Add the fact that the extra pineapple salsa (the Ewing made me do it) looked suspiciously just like something tipped out of a can by the man from Del Monte and it was rather underwhelming.

That said, the remaining pizza that they boxed up for us to take home made a great post drinking snack after being  given a further crisp up in the oven the following evening, so it wasn’t without salvation. Prices, at around eight quid a pop, are also fair for a product that is often given astronomical mark ups.

Restraining ourselves from getting too pizza-logged also meant we had room for pud, which for me was the standout part of the menu. Despite not having a hugely sweet tooth, and often not being very excited by deserts when eating out, there was nothing here I wouldn’t have happily buried my face in – literally or figuratively.

In a very strange turn of events, confirmed chocoholic the Ewing turned down the chocolate bundt cake with Mexican hot chocolate sauce and coffee ice cream; which meant, with that description, I was almost duty bound to order it. It was pretty much perfect; gooey cake, subtly spiced sauce set off by the creamy and caffeinated accompaniment. The only thing I rued being that by choosing it, I missed the opportunity to order the spotted dick and fresh custard or the apple and custard millefuille.

The Ewing, thankfully, wasn’t disappointed with her choice. A butternut squash bavavois served with red wine poached pears and homemade amaretti biscuits. The bavavois was particularly noteworthy; smooth, sweet and slightly claggy - like the best sort of cheesecake, but this time served with the biscuits on top.

I liked the Eight Bells; while the cooking could do with a little work, the menu’s interesting without being too outré -  there’s still plenty of room for lunchtime baguettes and staples such as fish and chips and steak pie – the greeting is friendly and there’s plenty of local ales and cider to slake a thirst.

While it might not all have been perfect, to get through a few drinks at lunch followed by Saturday afternoon visits to both Waitrose and Lidl (to stock up on the all important reserves of marzipan and stollen) on the way home and avoid a murder, Misdsommer related or otherwise, seemed like a pretty good result. Pass me the bottle opener.