Wednesday, 18 May 2016

They see me rollin' - Song Que, Hackney

One of my most endearing memories of the Ewing is from when we visited Song Que for the first time - eight years ago, on the first of her birthdays that we spent together - and she ordered the prawn rice paper rolls. I still remember her sheer unbridled joy at the arrival of the crustacean, vermicelli noodle and herb-stuffed cylinders; in fact, I’m still not sure I’ve ever known anyone quite so happy with a new discovery since my cousin tasted chocolate cake for the first time and broke down in a sugar-crazed frenzy that, decades later, no one has quite let him forget.

Happily, the Ewing is still just as awed by the simple things in life (hence why she married me) and was equally excited to return for another helping of summer rolls - and a few cold Saigon beers - for the auspicious occasion of her most recent birthday.

Not much has changed since our last visit, save a few grey hairs and a couple of crow's feet (speak for yourself - TE), and the distinctive green frontage remains a stalwart on the Kingsland Road, London's mecca for lovers of Vietnamese. It's also next door to the wonderful Geffrye Museum, a homage to the London home through the ages housed in 18th-century almshouses with a wonderful walled herb garden and plenty of room for a picnic on the front lawn if spicy food isn't your thing.

After a happy day featuring a salt beef bagel breakfast from the near by Brick Lane Beigal bake, followed by an afternoon admiring the blooms on the Columbia Road and appetite-sharpening at the Geffrye, our plate of prawn summer rolls were ordered with keen anticipation.

If I was being fussy the swift delivery, coupled with the fridge cold temperature and slightly gummy rice wrappers, suggested they had been pre-made a while earlier, All was forgiven, as they were very good - maybe not quite a Proustian madeline moment, but delicious nevertheless, especially when dipped in the moreish sweet peanut sauce alongside.

The main draw at Song Que is the beef noodle soup, or pho (or fur, if you want to be linguistically correct or smugly irritating). Firstly, I’m not really a fan of noodles in soup (especially rice noodles) as a general rule – too wholesome, too difficult to eat - but this is the dish they are famous for, and it’s the dish I ate last time I was here, so I felt duty bound to order it to recreate the experience properly.

Here it comes with beef steak, beef flank, beef tendon and beef tripe; or any combination of the above. The first time I tried it I shied away from the tripe, reckoning the glassy strips of cartilaginous tendon would be enough to deal with. This time I was more bullish (see what I did there) and went for the classic combo, reasoning - rather unreasonably considering my track record with ordering strange body parts - that I would barely notice the tripe with all the other good things bobbing about in my bowl.

Of course, what was the first thing I dredged up when the steaming broth arrived, a huge coil of the stuff, that wound round my chopstick in a manner of a giant octopus clinging the hull of a ship. Well, maybe not that dramatic, but it still looked pretty menacing. So I did what I always do when faced with unmentionable things; doused it in chilli oil (err, asked if I wanted to help you eat it more like - TE)

It would have helped to know at this point that Vietnamese chilli oil, or at least the version at Song Que, is not the sugary, MSG laden stuff I normally eat surreptitiously straight from the jar. This was pure, adulterated heat - meaning I couldn’t really taste the tripe, or feel my tongue for that matter. After the spice had died down, it all proved far less fearsome than I had feared especially after I flung in the dish of fresh herbs and beansprouts that accompanies each bowl and added a healthy spritz of lime. I’m still not keen on rice noodles, though.

The Ewing also chose noodles in soup, but this time egg noodles with a spicy broth with king prawns. Already an unusual choice for someone who isn’t keen on too much chilli, she then seemed to lose leave of her senses entirely and eat a piece of the accompanying chopped birds eye chillies. I was denied photo evidence, but much sweating and swearing while squinting at me through mascara-smudged eyes ensued. Yes, there is a pattern to our stupidity. 

Fortuitously, south east Asian deserts seem to be designed as a salve for burnt mouths and the Vietnamese three colour desert, che ba mau, is no exception. Layers of sweetened beans (here resembling Heinz finest) pandan jelly and coconut milk, topped with crushed ice and served to be mixed into a unholy mess tableside.

As far as these kind of things go, I found it strangely enjoyable. The sugary beans working with the floral notes of the jelly and the cool, bland coconut to make a sweet and soothing ending to the meal. And just look at that little face; still never as happy as when she's found something new to scoff.

Song Que Café Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Thursday, 12 May 2016

Prawns, Steak and Strawberries

Prawns steak and strawberries; a disparate selection of ingredients that sounds like the reply if you make the mistake of asking a five year old what they want for dinner - I still fondly remember my best friend from primary school answering 'smoked salmon' when his mum asked him what he'd like in his daily sandwiches. He was descended from a prime minister, so clearly he had refined tastes.

Lunchboxes aside, I'm still no clearer on the rationale behind the spring set menu being advertised for at the Kings Arms in Christchurch, or even if there was one. But if the combination sounds incongruous, these remain some of my favourite ingredients and my inner-five year old was very excited.

I have eaten at the the restaurant, found in an imposing Georgian building in the centre of the town, before. Although that occasion - with a large group of friends, well lubricated with plenty of wine - ended up with a wedding being crashed, some impromptu magic with a bowl of sugar cubes and an unfortunate incident with a frying pan.

This time was far more staid; a quiet weekday afternoon with just me and the wife and a couple of other tables occupied by ladies wot lunch. We didn't completely pass up on the vino though - cunningly picking a large glass of rose each, to pair with both the seafood and beef and to usher in the beginnings of summer, where having a chilled pink drink in hand in the middle of the day is pretty much the rules.

My starter was the Poole Bay shrimps, described succinctly as 'small prawns with toast'. Like their more famous cousins from Morecambe, these were sweet little commas of crustacean served bathed with their sweet herby juices on hot buttered toast. A simple plate of food that sung through the quality of the local ingredients.

The 'light vegetable crab and ginger and broth with spiced prawn dumplings' was more like the gloopy chicken and sweetcorn soup that comes as part of the meal for one at every old school chinese takeaway - which is no bad thing in my book. It was also mined through with a generous helping of springy little seafood stuffed dumplings. A solid start.

Bavette is one of my favourite cuts of steak although, as Rowley Leigh so succinctly put it, it turns to sisal carpet if overcooked. Here, although it was advertised as being served rare, someone hadn't read to the script and it was pushing past medium when it arrived. No matter, it was a decent piece of meat, served bathed in an even better sauce infused with garlic and thyme.

Unlike the steak, the chips were verging on underdone, although they were just on the right side of pale and interesting and were compared, favourably, to Maccy D's by the Ewing, a connoisseur in such matters. And, although not up to the standards of breadcrumbed onion rings and sauteed mushrooms my mum used to make to go with a steak, the classic watercress and grilled tomato garni were good.

A classic pairing in America, strawberry and rhubarb is still pretty novel combination on these shores. While I can see its potential - sweet berries complimenting the sour rhizomes - here my crumble filling was sadly wan and watery. Thankfully, the dish was redeemed by the crisp, crunchy topping and a masterful strawberry-infused custard, like a kind of grown up angel delight, which I was happy to just spoon from the jug.

Having been spoilt for mille feuille after visiting Jacques Genin in France earlier this year, this strawberry and cream version was always going to have a lot to live up to. And whilst it couldn't scale the dizzy heights of the Parisian pastry master, it was a more than passable effort with commendably flaky pastry, good creme pat and plenty of strawberry sauce.

And yes, while it probably wasn't as much fun without the jaeger bombs and the smuggled boxes of exploding fun snaps, what in life is, and at least I could still remember it the next morning.

You can also catch the menu, alongside the complimentary glass of fizz, during the Christchurch Festival - from 1st to 21st May - at the Christchurch Harbour Hotel. Although the last time we were in town, for the Festival Street Market, I was very happy lazing in the sun with a couple of pints of raspberry cider and a curried lamb pasty.

Wednesday, 4 May 2016

Wey Hey, it's Grandad's Birthday

I wasn't ever planning to write about our recent adventures in Weymouth. 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

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