Saturday, 26 July 2014

Fox and Hounds, Christmas Common

Like Orwell, I frequently muse about what makes a pub perfect - as can be seen in my previous ramblings on the Royal Standard of England in Knotty Green, having recently enjoyed another lovely lunch there with my sister. If you haven't read Orwell's essay, The Moon Under Water, you probably should. Suffice to say after you've finished reading this.

I imagine the Fox and Hounds would be an Orwell kind of pub. For a start the setting, hidden on the Oxfordshire/Buckinghamshire border, is impossibly picture postcard pretty. As is the pub itself, a handsome building covered in rambling greenery and dating back to 1643. Inside is a cosy front bar with inglenook fireplace, and a larger open plan dining area. It's proved a pretty versatile space through the years, the 2010 election even saw it used as a local polling station, but the main draw on such a glorious day was the chocolate box garden at the front.

Shaded picnic sets, a pile of dog bowls piled by an outside tap and a perfectly manicured herb patch - where the sous chef appeared intermittently to collect fresh sprigs of rosemary - make this a perfect spot to while away an afternoon. Like mad dogs and Englishmen, we braved the glare of the full midday sun, unable to predict quite how long this fleeting good weather may last.

To slake my thirst was a glimmering pint of Breakspear's Oxford Gold. Is there anything better on a summer's day in a sunny pub garden than a classic cask beer? I've yet to find it. A quintessentially English drop and a well kept example of this eminently quaffable golden ale

I  could tell the burger- glazed with a thick slice of Stilton that properly melted over the top - was going to be good when I held it aloft and a stream of juicy goodness spurted down my sleeve (steady).
The patty itself was hefty, and grilled perfectly to retain its pink and juicy centre, although I did have to ditch most the salad inside as the rather weedy bun struggled to contain its ample cargo.

The Ewing, attempting her first solid meal post-abscess trauma, went for the lasagne and salad -spookily mirroring my first meal post-abscess trauma, eaten on an American Airlines flight somewhere above the Atlantic with plastic cutlery and a grimace. Thankfully this was much nicer.

While baked pasta may not illicit too many oohs and ahhs this was classic pub grub; tasty, generous and well made. I could tell it was going down well as every crispy crust of garlic bread and crunchy mouthful of salad was greedily braved by the patient, and all assistance offered with my hovering fork in hand being firmly rebuked.

We finished off with a post-prandial walk around the rolling countryside, that lead - unsurprisingly, even with a map in hand - to us becoming hopelessly lost. Thankfully the feeling of good cheer from our lunch remained, despite the attempts of a fearsome pack of horseflies tried their hardest to drain every drop of blood from me, and we managed to retrace our steps without descending in to either stony silence or noisy admonishing.

Of course as you get older you realise setting any sort of arbitrary rules about what makes anything great - pubs or otherwise - often leads to anembarrassing loss of face when you change your mind, or, much worse, stubbornly missing out on things. But, as so very often, I think George was right;

'If anyone knows of a pub that has draught stout, open fires, cheap meals, a garden, motherly barmaids and no radio, I should be glad to hear of it.' Well, the Fox and Hounds may just be the one.

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Lenos & Carbon, Elephant and Castle

Columbia has featured quite prominently in the news recently - well, certainly if you've paid any interest to the small soccerball tournament that's just finished in Brazil. Firstly there was the 20 year anniversary of the tragic killing of Andrés Escobar, followed by the far happier memories of James Roderigez netting the Golden Boot, with one spectacular effort being voted the goal of the tournament

It also so happens that Elephant and Castle, my usual weekend stomping ground, has the highest Colombian population in London; which is still pretty much apropos of nothing if you happen to be Stealth. Not only does she have a less than cursory interest in football, recently announcing 'the Match of the Day theme tune makes me feel sick', but she's still barely even registered the Latin spirit of the area. Pretty hard to miss, especially on a Saturday when the thick cloud of smoke from the chorizo sausages being grilled on split oil drums, alongside a loud Latin soundtrack and huge swathes of bunting, bursts out from under the railway arches.

Despite her startling lack of observation skills she is nothing if not up for trying something new, which is how we found ourselves on a deserted Rockingham street, just off the main E&C roundabout, on a muggy Monday afternoon.

As well as a fridge crammed full of sugary soft drinks such as the lurid Inca Kola and icy lager, they have a range of homemade fruit smoothies.  The South Americas are known for their huge range of native fruits that are seldom seen on this side of the Atlantic, and here you can chose from flavours including naranjillo and soursop, or the more familiar blackberry and mango. 

I tried the passion fruit flavour,  up there with the best beverages I have imbibed this year. Perhaps a bold claim for something containing not a drop of alcohol, although the #peckhampunch I had been knocking back at a party the previous Saturday ran it close (and contributed to the factor I still wasn't back drinking alcohol several days later...). 

To eat I chose the Bandeja Paisa (literally translated as platter from the Paisa region, found in the northweat of the country and home to the Colombian Coffee-Growers Axis), the national dish of Columbia that's known for it's generous portion size and for the variety of different delights all found on one plate.

In fact, I found it rather like an English fry up for coffee growers (stay with me here) being as it contained beans, sausage, fried bread and eggs and a slice of pork belly that could be, if you really squinted, mistaken for a extra thick rasher of streaky. Granted, white rice, plantain, ground beef and avocado don't often feature at your usual greasy spoon, and an arepa is pretty far removed from a fried slice, but I found this pick'n'mix of meat and carbs equally effective at hangover busting.

The slow stewed beans, studded with salty porky bits, were a particular highlight, alongside the grilled meats that were rich with salt, garlic and smoke from the grill. And while I rued the fact the Ewing, a confirmed plantain aficionado, wasn't here to try some of this vast specimen, it did leave all the more for me. To mop it all up the arepa, a ground maize flat bread cooked on the griddle, was interesting, but possibly a taste I haven't yet fully acquired.

Another handy thing about eating with Stealth is the delegation of ordering, meaning I can essentially chose two dinners (although the flipside to this being half my food usually gets swiped from across the table).

The Patacon con Todo I chose for her was another mix'n' match affair, this time based around patacones, or deep fried green plantains, that are flattened to resemble a corn tortilla. The plantain base is then served 'con todo', or with everything. In this case heaped with a variety of meats - shredded beef and chicken and fried cubes of crispy pork belly - shredded cheese, pineapple sauce, garlic sauce and guacamole.

On its arrival, Stealth marvelled at the appearance of her dinner - announcing excitedly 'I've never seen anything like this before'.  Thankfully, this turned out to be a good thing. And while it may not be much of a looker, each component managed to be distinctively delicious when eaten alone as well as in tandem with anything else on the plate (or mine, for that matter). 

Brevas con Quso y Arequipe, figs cooked in syrup served with caramel and white cheese, were frustratingly beyond either of our appetites, not a real surprise considering the portion sizes. Hopefully I'll be back soon enough to sample this intriguing sounding, diabetic coma of a desert, but on this trip a pleasingly full stomach and a vanquished hangover would have to suffice. 

(NB, in the absence of pictures of Stealth enjoying her aforementioned feast, here is one of her demonstrating her latest trick. That's magic.) 

Thursday, 17 July 2014

'Easy' One Crust Cherry Pie


Choosing a favourite fruit rather feels like choosing a favourite child - is it the first bite of a crisp russet in October; a juicy Clementine at Christmas; a slice of watermelon on a summer's afternoon or a pale pink stalk of rhubarb brightening the late winter gloom? While my mind changes as quickly as the seasons, if push were really to come to shove, I think it would have to be the English cherry. The fact that they are still only available during the late summer makes them taste even sweeter for those few blissful weeks where I’m never far from a brown paper bag full of the little red fruit.

One dark moment came a few years ago when, after preparing dinner, I sat down to greedily munch my way through a pound or two. On eating the first few, my lips began to tingle and burn - immediately I thought of my mother who, at about the same age as I then was, had developed an allergy to cherries whilst eating them on a picnic in France. Suddenly, a grim stone fruit free future loomed, at least until I pieced together the evidence and realised the unpleasant burning sensation was related to the fact I had been previously chopping fresh chillies, and, thankfully, had nothing to do with the cherries at all.

I have always studiously avoided using fresh cherries in recipes; primarily because there just perfect eaten as they are, but also because of the lack of a cherry pitter in my life. This summer, having bought a crate of local cherries large enough that even I had trouble finishing them, I decided to finally make the leap and buy one to make Delia Smiths one crust fruit pie, from her peerless Summer Collection.

Suffice to say, the pitter lasted about four minutes - just the time it took to realise the time spent saved pitting the cherries would be spent wiping spurts of cherry juice from the walls/floors/cupboards/my eyes...

Eagle-eyed readers may have also noticed the quote marks around the ‘easy’ in the title of this blog; if the cherry pitter wasn't enught of a pitfall, I still had to make the pastry. While I set out to attempt it in a bullish frame of mind, reasoning if Delia said it was simple then surely it must be, my first effort ended up crumbling onto the floor, into the cat’s bowl, on the bottom of my shoes and, finally, into the bin. The situation, as now seems customary with anything involving pastry making in our house, quickly descended into a row, with the Ewing’s attempts to help lift the dough onto the baking sheet also ending in an unmitigated disaster.

With the Ewing safely upstairs sulking, I persevered with a second batch, this time using the trusty food processor rather than by hand. While this second attempt had the opposite problem of being rather too wet, as opposed to resembling sand, it was, thankfully, far easier to roll out.

After the bitter and bloody battle that proceeded it, the pie turned out to be a hard won success. Especially when served served warm, in thick slices with plenty of vanilla ice cream.

One Crust Cherry Pie with Hazelnut Pastry
Adapted from Delia's Summer Collection

For the filling
700 g pitted cherries
40g caster sugar
2 tbsp semolina/polenta
1 egg yolk
For the glaze
1 egg white
For the shortcrust pastry:
175 g plain flour
50g ground hazelnuts
80 g butter 
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon

Make up the pastry by sifting the flour into a large mixing bowl, then rubbing the fats into it lightly with your fingertips.
When the mixture reaches the crumb stage, sprinkle in enough cold water to bring it together to a smooth dough that leaves the bowl absolutely clean. 
Give it a little light knead to bring it fully together, then place the pastry in a polythene bag in the fridge for 30 minutes. 
Pre-heat the oven to gas mark 6, 400°F (200°C). 
Then roll the pastry out on a flat surface to a round of approximately 35 cm as you roll, ragged edges are fine.
Carefully roll the pastry round the rolling pin and transfer it to the centre of the lightly greased baking sheet.
To prevent the pastry getting soggy from any excess juice, paint the base with egg yolk, then sprinkle the semolina lightly over to soak up the juices from the fruit.
No turn in the edges of the pastry: if any breaks, just patch it back on again.
Brush the pastry surface all round with the beaten egg white .
Place highest shelf of the oven and bake for approximately 35 minutes or until the crust is golden brown. 


Monday, 14 July 2014

Aobaba, Walworth Road

Sometimes a favourite place can be more than just the sum of its parts, especially when you’re suffering from the effects of one too many shandies the night before. 

Take Bobby’s, the run-of-the-mill sandwich shop I used to live near, that provided crusty tuna rolls and ice cold Coke to stave off the most fearsome of hangovers; or Drew’s Bakery, where I’d stop for a Saturday morning pain au chocolate, or even some of their fabulous lardy cake, to make weekend working more bearable. And who can forget the, life-giving boxes of greasy TEFC fried chicken the Ewing and I would scoff in bed after a night on the tiles.

Now there’s a new, and thankfully a little more sophisticated, saviour in town; Aobaba on the Walworth Road that also has the bonus of conveniently situated within staggering distance of Stealth’s house. Because while we’re told you’re supposed to get wiser as you grow old, in reality it seems the hangovers are just getting worse…

While the bright but rather sterile Aobaba might not be quite like hanging around back street Hai Noi (probably a good thing) I can attest that after an epic Bank Holiday weekend when I thought I would never feel quite the same again, salvation came in the form of a bowl of their Spicy Hue Noodle soup.
It’s described on the menu as beef shin, pork ball and pork meat in a spicy lemongrass broth with rice noodles; and while I’m not quite sure it lives up to the sum of its parts, a large bowl - complete with a forest of Vietnamese greenery, bean sprouts and bird’s eye chillies to really blast the cobwebs away - costs just seven quid.

It’s everything you could want from your lunch; soothing soup; a flotilla of fresh herbs; meaty protein; chilli heat; and lots of carby noodles, growing fat in the broth at the bottom. Not a perfect example in its field, but it’s hard to put a price on stopping that queasy stomach and pounding head that’s  achieved with a few slurps from a bowl of this nectar.

For simpler tastes the chicken Pho, with rice vermicelli noodles, shredded meat and herbs, is the Ewing’s go to reviver. Simple but effective, although even a bowl of this combined with a sweaty schlep around the E&C subway couldn’t stop the Ewing falling into a post-lunch slumber on the train home.

While they are best known for their bubble teas, I think I might prefer the fresh fruit smoothies. I’d recommend the pineapple as being particularly good for digestive distress, although I haven’t yet summoned the courage to try to durian flavour.

The novelty of the classic boba tea still hasn’t worn thin though, and I’d rate the efforts at Aobaba as pretty decent. Although the flavoured ‘bubble’ selection available on any one visit can be a bit hit and miss there's enough choice to mean I can always try something different every time.

The last one I tried, the milk tea with red bean and coconut served black tapioca pearls, comes recommended, making a nice change from my favourite order of milk tea with black pearls. While the green apple with pineapple jelly cubes or mango boba is great refresher in the hot weather.

Another menu staple which has proved elusive - annoyingly my visits often precede the fresh bread delivery, or I turn up after it's all gone - are the banh mi, or traditional Vietnamese baguettes.

The baguettes are the authentic rice flour-based variety, which means the bread has a lighter, crispier crust than the standard French baguettes that they have evolved from after its introduction to South east Asia during colonialism.

To me banh mi is fusion food at its best; here they have a selection of fillings - from the classic Saigon with roast pork, ham and pate, to spicy lemongrass chicken. The buns are then finished with fresh red chilli, coriander and a handful of crisp pickled veg. At, on average, three or four quid each they put M&S pallid prepacked offerings to shame.

Lest you get the impression I’m always already inebriated when visiting, Aobaba is also a good place to have a drink too. They serve a trio of SE Asian beers, Hai Noi, Hue and Saigon, at £2.50 a pop, the cheapness atoning somewhat for the not-quite-cold-enough temperatures. You can also buy crates to go from the adjoining shop.

The beers also make perfect accompaniments to their range of snacks and starters. The minced grilled beef and pork, wrapped in betel leaves, attractively nicknamed ‘dead men’s toes' by the Ewing, being particularly nice if rather unphotogenic. They also have a selection of, rather average, steamed dumplings providing ballast for a pound.

After eating it's well worth going for a browse in the attached Longdan supermarket. As well as fresh rice flour baguettes and green pandan cakes there’s also a good soft drink selection; Thai and Vietnamese varieties of Red Bull (this stuff will really give you wings), lurid basil jelly shakes, roasted coconut juice, soya milks and fruit sodas for all your re hydration needs

They also stock a wide range of Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese, Korean and Japanese store cupboard essentials a large selection of both fresh and frozen meat, fish, fruit and vegetables. It’s also a good spot to seek out cooking utensils, pots and pans and tableware. There's even a nice selection of bamboo hats, perfect for the inclement weather of the Walworth Road

Aobaba on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Wild Strawberry Cafe, Prestwood

The Ewing and I don’t often argue (well, much anyway) but come the summertime we always manage to have at least one exchange of words over three small letters: PYO.

For while the idea of spending a sunny afternoon picking soft fruits and digging vegetables wouldn’t appear, on the surface, to be a very divisive issue - and the picking its self remains a fun-filled activity - the punnets of frozen fruits that fill the freezer, alongside the endless jars of jams and curds and bottles of flavoured spirits and liqueurs that seem to fall out of every cupboard upon opening provoke an annual bone of contention.

Up until last weekend, this year was looking pretty textbook. I mentioned going fruit picking, the Ewing replied not until I had eaten at least some of the blackberries that had solidified into a great frozen purple mass. That was until she came in to the bedroom last Sunday morning and suggested we went to Peterley Farm. I, careful not to mention the several jars of gooseberry and elderflower chutney I had recently found under the bed, quickly agreed.

 
It wasn’t until a little later I found out the real reason for her renewed enthusiasm; discovering, via her parents, the existence of new pop up café that had sprung up in a yurt onsite. By this point it was too late to say no, although the idea of being trapped under canvas with the sort of people who might think it was fun to visit a farm early on a Sunday morning (conveniently forgetting this included myself until a few minutes previously) suddenly didn’t seem very appealing.

So what a joy it is to report that the Wild Strawberry Café is one of the nicest places I have visited for a long while. I would use that hoary old cliché ‘hidden gem’, but as we turned up for brunch so it seems did half the surrounding Chiltern Villages. Showing, despite only being open a few weeks, the word is clearly already getting out.

There are plenty of reasons to love WSC, first up being the charming service – seriously, I've never met such a well versed and charming group of young people, especially early on a Sunday – and the cafetieres of Extract Coffee they serve.

Having forgone my usual pint of PG Tips in order to get out on time the Mexican blend we sampled first – in homage to their heroics the night before against the Dutch – was superb, although, sadly there’s no booze, as a bloody mary or glass of fizz would be the cherry on the cake.

Speaking of cake, they also had some trays of pretty brilliant looking Danish pastries and croissants, although figuring that a quarter to eleven was pretty much lunch time, I went for the special of Stockings Farm lamb burger with a griddled courgette and feta salad.

This was, in a word, joyful; the fantastic brioche bun and slow roasted tomatoes being particularly worthy of praise and the lamb being cooked to a perfect pink within and charred on the outside. I would have perhaps preferred a slightly bigger patty, but I’m greedy like that. The salad, shared with my wife because I’m nice, was sweet and zingy with lemon at once, punctuated by little nuggets of the salty sheep’s cheese.

The Ewing chose the far more prosaic at that time in the morning, but no less delicious bacon sarnie. Rashers of crispy back on local sourdough and served with artisan ketchup or Oxford brown sauce. This was rated as very good from one of the world’s most proficient bacon sarnie makers; high praise indeed. Again, probably owing to my greed, it would have been nice to have the option to apply your own sauces as the wrong ratio can kill all breakfast enjoyment, but there was just right amount for the Ewing.

There followed a picking interlude which, as every year before, I, remembering the Ewing’s words about storage and waste -carefully picked a scant few punnets of choice fruit, while the Ewing went full out and attempted to fill the whole boot (while leaving me to try and deal with the rapidly fermenting  haul, but that’s another blog post...). Poppycock - TE

After a quick visit to the farm shop, for the superlative Lacey Green Farm cream to anoint our berries later, it was time for round two at WSC. For the second round we opted to share a large pot of the Kenyan coffee and a slice each of the magisterial cakes that lined the counter.

I had the courgette, walnut and cinnamon flavour, tall layers of sponge and butter cream that were a feat of engineering and tasted just as good, while the Ewing nabbed the last square of rhubarb and almond. Although the picture above doesn’t do it any justice, the nutty, sweet sponge was crammed full of batons of the sharp fruit and was, like the courgette number, superlative.

I’m not sure how long these guys are going to be here, but I’m hoping beyond the summer as there’s a wood burner in the yurt that would, I’m sure, keep it wonderfully toasty in inclement weather. And (as much as it pains me to recommend if it means the queues get any longer) this is - in a country that still hasn’t really embraced the joy of brunch properly - pretty much the perfect brunch spot.

Monday, 30 June 2014

Pig Cheek Vindaloo

We're England!
We're gonna score one more than you
Fat Les - Vindaloo

Another summer, another crushing footballing disappointment. Ever since that fateful night in Turin 24 years ago, when I've never seen my Father - or anyone else for that matter - drink so much brandy, I've become used to it. So much so that the St George bunting wasn't even unfurled this year.

Not that I'm feeling too down about it, the World Cup is turning into a cracking competition despite our early exit; even the Ewing is clamouring to stay up late watching Honduras kick lumps out of Ecuador or Greece crash out against the Costa Rica And, no matter how bad we are at kick ball, we're still great at curry. 

Originally introduced to the west coast of India by the Portuguese, carne de vinha d'alhos - a dish of meat, usually pork, marinaded in wine and garlic - was modified to local tastes with the substitution of palm vinegar for wine and the addition of lots of red Kashmiri chilies to evolve into what we now know as vindaloo.

Sadly it's now become somewhat of a joke dish; hijacked by sweaty men who like to posture post-pub, pints of lager in hand, whilst making jokes about frozen loo roll. Terry Pratchett memorably described it in his Disc World novels as 'mouth-scalding gristle for macho foreign idiots'. And while it is hot, the heat is far from the only point of what should be a fragrant, and even subtle, dish.

 
Following on from my last post - where we ended up eating karahi in deepest darkest Whitechapel - this curry was originally devised in preparedness for my spice loving Sister coming over to stay from Oz; a vindaloo being her usual choice when she goes out for a ruby. 

As with all best laid plans, we didn't end up having time to make it for her visit, but I did get a chance to make it for my Mum, another fearless curry lover, when she last came to stay. And, even if I do say so myself, it was quite frankly top drawer stuff. Easily one of the best curries I have made at home, and something a bit different than the fare offered by our usual flock wallpapered local haunts.

Not only that, but it was hugely simple to make. Just take your meat, I used pig cheeks - the Ewing cleared the shelves at our local Waitrose - and cover in the marinade for a couple of hours to allow the vinegar to tenderise the meat. Then soften onions in a little oil, add the meat and a tin of tomatoes and cook for a in the oven until tender. 

Cheeks are ideal for this as they have very little fat but lots of connective tissue that makes a wonderfully rich and gelatinous sauce that isn't too rich or greasy. Next time I plan to try some cubed pork or lamb shoulder, or even chicken thighs, but I reckon any tough cut - especially strong flavours like goat, game or mutton - would work a treat.

Pig Cheek Vindaloo
(Adapted from Simon Majumdar)

Ingredients
2kg pig cheeks or pork shoulder, trimmed and cut into inch pieces
1 cup palm/cider/white wine vinegar
10 cm fresh ginger, peeled
6 Fresh chilies, finely chopped (I grated mine with a Microplane)
10 cloves of garlic, peeled
1 tsp salt

Spices
1/2 tsp ground cloves
2 tsp garam masala
2 tsp ground Cumin seeds
2 tsp ground Coriander seeds
2 tsp chili powder
1 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp sugar

2 white onions, sliced
1 tin chopped tomatoes
Vegetable Oil for frying

Instructions
Put the salt ginger and garlic into a pestle and mortar and grind to fine paste
Place the pork into a non-reactive bowl, add the garlic ginger paste, the chopped chilies and the vinegar and massage into the meat.
Mix together al the spices pour over the pork and massage well into the meat. Cover with cling film and leave to marinade for at least two hours to allow the vinegar time to penetrate and tenderise the pork.
When ready to cook, preheat the oven to 180c.
Heat a little oil in a large pot and fry the onions until golden.
Pour the entire contents of the bowl into the pan along with the tinned tomatoes. Add water, if needed, so the liquid just covers the meat, stir well, put on the lid and place pot in the oven.
Cook for about three hours, removing the lid a third of the way through the cooking time, or until the sauce has thickened and the meat is tender.

As with all curies, this is even better eaten a day or two after cooking. Piles of fluffy white rice or nan bread, cucumber raita to cool down burnt tongues and plenty of Cobra are obligatory.

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

London Loves

When I was young (very) occasionally I would visit Wycombe's resident meat market, the legendary Club Eden. Every town has one - the sticky-floored cesspit serving lurid alcopops and pints of gassy lager, where bouncers with thick necks the colour of corned beef give everyone the slow look up-and-down, from their Ben Sherman shirts down to their school shoes (no sportswear or trainers allowed, lest they lower the tone) before allowing them into the inner sanctum or condemning them to the last bus home.

It's been so long since those dark days that I'd almost forgotten quite how it felt to be scrutinized and looked over at the door, but I recently had the dubious pleasure of being reminded of such ignominy on our trip to the Shard with the Oz-based Princess Em and Robbie G. 

Looking forward to treating them to some booze with views, we approached the threshold as a clean cut and charming bunch of thirty somethings, all suitably dressed - Stealth had even cracked out her tuxedo jacket - until the first hint that all was not well as we attempted to gain entrance to the building. 'I'm not sure they will let you in' was the lady at receptions greeting to Robbie G - apparently the suede and canvas boots he was wearing were perilously 'trainer like'.  

Running the risk and proceeding up in the lift to the Aqua Shard bar I saw, for the first time in fifteen or so years, the full-up-and-down sneer in action as we approached the doorman. Even now the exaggerated head flick as he eyed us all suspiciously makes me both chortle with amusement and bubble with indignation.

Feeling like naughty school children, we were finally admitted and lead downstairs to the bar area, but not before my backpack has been pretty much wrenched from my back and stuffed into the cloakroom on the way past. Here we waited in wonder for our next staff encounter might hold, until we realised that no one was remotely interested in us now we were inside, leaving the Ewing and I to go up and attempt to order at the bar ourselves.

After a bit of a wait the cocktails, from three lists based on the English staples tea and gin, or from the Shard 'classics', were so so. Stealth and Robbie G's looked the part with their fancy fruit garnishes - although a good glug of Stealth's was spilt across the table by the waiter before she had the chance to try it - while the Ewing enjoyed her savoury Hot Tommy with tequila, watercress, chilli and lime.

Princess Emily's bloody mary, however - ordered spicy with just a little ice, but arriving with enough to sink the Titanic - was so unpalatably sweet she returned to the bar to ask for a top up of tomato juice. A fresh cocktail was offered, the new bar tender who sampled it didn't seem too impressed either, but refused as I'm not sure any of us relished the thought of hanging around there for much longer. 

Luckily our ardour for the rest of the day's Big Smoke-based debauchery wasn't diminished by our trip up the tower - rather to the contrary, the our whole experience on the 32nd floor gave us all something to dissect in wonder through the rest of the day. It was rather a shame though, that, unlike the cocktails, the service left a somewhat sour taste. 

Aqua Shard on Urbanspoon
Next stop was the Tower Bridge branch of the Draft House to slake our thirst. Previously written about on the blog here, and a still a very nice place for a pint in this neck of the woods. Despite being renowned for a huge range of craft beer and ale - including from the Kernal, which you can pretty much see from their door - I have scant recollection of what we drank - other than it was plentiful.

I do know I had something ferociously hoppy to start, followed by a half of their guest ale, rather a steal for these parts at £2.90 a pint. We also had a selection of snacks; their fabulous foot long scratchings; a 'boat' of southern fried wings served with Frank's Red Hot sauce for dipping; and their celebrated scotch egg with curry mayo which, even as a known egg hater, was too pretty not to get a snap of.

The Draft House Pub on Urbanspoon

Next up, along Wapping High Street, was the Town of Ramsgate, so named for the fishermen from The Isle of Thanet who’d land their catches on the wharf outside. Reputedly the oldest pub on the Thames, the original hostelry was probably opened during the War of the Roses, in the 1460s, although the present building dates to 1758.

Shoehorned into a thin strip between Oliver’s Wharf and Wapping Old Stairs, the small terraced garden backs on to the water and at low tide you can still see the post that condemned pirates were chained to as the river rose.  Luckily we had Stealth, our able tour guide, who gave us a brief potted history as we sat outside and enjoyed a pint of Ghost Ship, probably quite appropriate tipple for these parts.


This is an old-fashioned proper boozer, oozing history from its rickety timbers and, thankfully as yet, untouched by the hand of sterile commercialism. There is a menu of pub classics, served in hefty portions – fish and chips, ham and eggs, steak and kidney pud and spotted dick- and weekday lunches are available on a buy one get one for a pound deal, making it a perfect refuelling stop for those on a river walk (or pub crawl). There's even a resident cat, which had no chance of getting past the Ewing...

Town of Ramsgate on Urbanspoon
We had room for one more port of call before dinner, meaning a drink at the Captain Kidd, a few doors from the town of Ramsgate, was sadly jettisoned so we could fit in a half at the another previous favourite, the Prospect of Whitby. While the Prospect may lack some character compared to our previous stop, it remains a classic pub for a reason and it would be hard to pass by without calling in for at least one whistle-wetter.  

The Whitby is now owned by the Taylor-Walker chain, which seems rather a shame after its chequered history dating back to 1520 and with its previous patrons including Charles Dickens, Samuel Pepys, Judge Jeffries, Whistler, Turner and Richard Burton. Rodney was even seen walking out of there when Uncle Albert went missing in Only Fools and Horses.

Despite the slightly soulless atmosphere and generic menu and drinks list, the service is friendly and views are still unbeatable; although I find sitting at one of their window tables, with the Thames lapping right up against the side of the glass, makes me feel decidedly queasy (nothing to do with the beer, of course).

Prospect of Whitby on Urbanspoon

The final stop saw us wind ourselves around the Shadwell basin, stopping to admire the stunning vista across the water to Canary Wharf - who knew urban East London could look so calm and beautiful - and into Whitechapel for a ‘proper’ curry.

One of my little sister’s greatest loves, and the thing she misses the most living in Sydney - other than her older sister of course – is a good curry. Which, like decent bacon and sausages, is something the Aussies have yet to properly master; surely a cash cow (or pig) for some enterprising entrepreneur.

While they may have hours of glorious sunshine, beautiful sandy beaches and a laid back lifestyle anyone would be envious of, the joys of a sweet and sour lamb dhansak; fiery chicken vindaloo, sag bhaji and fluffy nan bread remain elusive. Even if they often have to be endured with a side order of drizzle when enjoyed on these shores.

As a consequence of this deprivation everybody wants to take her and the G out for an Indian when she’s back home, not really much of a hardship, I suppose, but I don’t envy the co-passengers on the flight back to Oz.  While there are several decent restaurants near my house, I wanted to give them a proper East End experience, complete with the thick fug of grilled meat smoke hanging in the air and wipe down plastic tablecloths.

Last time I was in this neck of the woods we had gone to the Tayabs for chops and dry meat (and the memorable sight of Stealth prostrate in the corridor with some sort of bilious attack), so this time we chose one of their near rivals, Lahore Kebab House, to see how they’d stack up.

Lahore Kebab House. The food is karahi chicken karahi gosht, butter chicken bhindi gosht sag aloo, peshwari and garlic nans, tandoori rotis, rice and a plate of poppadoms - ordered by Stealth after the main dishes arrived 'it isn't the same without a poppadom.'

Décor is basic, to be kind, but the buzz from the rapidly filling room - even on a Monday night - and the heat and clatter coming from the kitchen were promising signs. As with many of the restaurants around these parts, LHR is unlicensed but you can BYO, meaning all the nearby corner shops have chilled cabinets stuffed full of large bottles of icy Cobra.

Dishes arrive with a lightning rapidity from the kitchen, a plate of salad to start followed by curries that are served in well worn karahi dishes set on hollow metal rings, followed by a basket of freshly baked bread and sides of chutney and fluffy pilau rice. I rued the fact I couldn't manage a plate of their famed chops, but the rest of our food was good, especially the karahi dishes and the bhindi gosht, rich chunks of mutton cooked with okra in a spicy gravy.

Deserts comprise of the tooth-achingly sweet familiar favourites; gulab jamun, kheer, halwa and kulfi, but we made do with a few more bottles of Cobra while we marvelled that our feast, sans grog, had only just reached double figures - 11 quid - per head. Less than the price of a drink at the Shard, no suspicious eyeing up at the door, and with a bagful of leftover nan bread to take home for breakfast to boot.

From the sublime to the ridiculous, or vice versa, I still loved experiencing some of the joys of my wonderful hometown, shared with some of my favourite people.

Lahore Kebab House on Urbanspoon