Friday, 19 September 2014

Sambal Kitchen and Diner

A few weeks ago the Ewing and I were tasked with picking up a parcel from Gerrards Cross. Not wanting to schlep all the way over to ‘mini Hollywood’ – Wikipedia’s words, certainly not mine - for nothing, I was quick to seize the chance for an impromptu lunch stop en route.

The question was, where? As far as good eating goes, since leaving my first ever job (at legendary sandwich bar Mrs Crusty, the place I learnt how to battle with clingfilm and win) GX ‘village’ (it’s not) is depressingly bereft of anywhere I’d actively choose to patronise. This really is white sliced Middle Englander and ladies wot lunch territory.

Sure, there’s a branch of Malik’s – Heston’s favourite Cookham based curry house, and there’s Bawarchi, another Indian where we'd recently had a rather nice dinner. There’s also an offshoot of Beaconsfield bakers Jung’s, always good for a cake and a coffee; and I’ve been meaning to try the Three Oaks, yet another Cookham spin-off - although our meal at mother pub, the White Oak, was pretty average and pretty expensive.

After a bit of aimless Googling, I decided the best course of action was to carry on a few miles down the Western Avenue to South Harrow where, again according to my friend, Wikipedia, ‘shops on Northolt Road sell Sri Lankan and Polish groceries. There are five Halal butchers, nine public houses and four chicken shops.’ Beer and fried poultry, now that’s more like it.

Despite the leafy beech trees and chalk escarpments of my Chiltern home, I still love this neck of the woods. I was born less than two miles up the road and good old Grandad still happily lives round the corner in Pinner. I also love the contrast; as you dice with death dodging in and out of bus lanes, marvelling at tmyserious shops with names such as Shankar Superstore and Natraj Sweet Centre, a mere twenty minutes away au pairs pushing Bugaboos are competing for space at the duck pond on GX Common. South Harrow can still boast a bigger branch of Waitrose, though.

After an attempt to entice us into having our fortune read under the railway bridge (lord if it wasn’t for bad luck, you know I wouldn’t have no luck at all), we made it to Sambal Kitchen and Diner, a Sri Lankan restaurant complete with sister takeaway branch next door. 

We started off with some mutton rolls; good old Findus pancake-esque cylinders wrapped in fluorescent breadcrumbs and stuffed with spiced lamb, and served alongside a hot chilli dip and the obligatory sparse shreds of warm iceberg. The classic tubular snack, fresh from the fryer, to get things going.

We also had a dosa, one of the Ewing’s favourites. This time we tried the Jaffna dosa, two spongy, slightly sour, lentil pancakes served with coconut chutney and a thin vegetable sambar for dipping. Rather different from the more familiar masala dosa, a drier, more French crepe like version, but very good none the less. 

Drinks, which appeared about half way through our meal, were interesting. The Ewing had a fresh pineapple juice, while I had the Nelli crush, a lurid green, ultra sweet gooseberry flavoured cordial that was surprisingly refreshing when paired with all the heat and spice. This one came, unusually, with crunchy jelly like lumps, adding its own unique frogspawn-like texture. Mmm, crunchy frogspawn

My main was the devilled mutton curry with two buttery Veechu roti – the Sri Lankan version being far closer to Malay style flaky flatbread rather than the, relatively, parsimonious Indian kind. Served with a dish of simple creamy, nutty yellow daal and more fresh coconut chutney.

I love curries like this; the thin fiery gravy rich with the slightly acrid note of fried curry leaves and the dry chilli spicing fierce enough to thoroughly clear the sinuses. The bread was great, too, breaking apart in fluffy, ghee-soaked layers to be used to scoop up the sticky shreds of tender meat.

The Ewing went for the Pittu and fish curry, an interesting combo of pittu, a dish of steamed cylinders of ground rice layered with coconut, usually served for breakfast; a punchy Ceylon omelette (stuffed with fresh green chillies); coconut sambal; a vegetable paal curry and a king fish curry.

The Ewing was slightly apprehensive about the king fish curry. The last time she had ordered one, down at Dosa World in Bournemouth, it was so hot that she couldn't manage eat it, while the insane spiciness left me temporarily deaf and barely able to breath. The sweaty endorphin rush at the time was great, the day after not so much.

This was far tamer, but still with a decent kick, the meaty king fish standing up well to the rich, slightly smoky, sauce and the turrets of rice providing a nice bland counterpoint to the spice of the curry.

I was beaten when it came to desert, but the Ewing, unsurprisingly, wasn’t ready to admit defeat. Her choice was the falooda, a tooth-achingly sugary ice cream desert flavoured with heady rosewater syrup and studded throughout with chunks of fruit.

On arrival it smelt rather like a gathering of freshly powdered grandmas and looked like pink ectoplasm, so when she proclaimed it was nice I was happy just to take her word for it. Although, even she doubted the wisdom of attempting to finish the whole thing after the vast spread that had preceded it.

Twenty four quid later and we were happily heading back to the leafy ‘burbs to pick the package up, only to discover that it had been locked in a storage cupboard and the only key holder had gone home twenty minutes beforehand (long story). Proving it really was a falooda too far. 

Thursday, 11 September 2014


In a change from my usual default horizontal mode things have gone a bit crazy bonkers recently; lots of work stuff, plenty of friend stuff, some family stuff and an allotment that is hemorrhaging marrows (and spaghetti squash, pumpkins, artichokes and tomatoes...).

Thankfully, to help restore the chilled-out equilibrium, we had a week down in North Devon to look forward to with with my Dad and his antipodean other half Shelly for company. Seven days where there was nothing more demanding to do than meet my one self-imposed  target - to eat ice cream and crab at least once a day throughout stay. #crabandicecreamchallenge (check Instagram for all the photos) accepted.

First stop, after aborted plans for lunch at the Broomhill Sculpture Gardens due to holiday traffic and and obligatory first fall out of the trip halfway down the M5, was the Porlock Weir, a picture postcard fishing harbour on the West Somerset coast.

Luckily we soon had our first success, in the form of crab sandwiches on the lawn at the, simply monikered, The Cafe. These formed perfectly pleasant and rather genteel lunch - although I did lower the tone slightly by stuffing them with the accompanying cheese and onion crisps. A solid and shell-free (the one downside with crab sarnies) start to our adventure.

Our first ice creams of our trip came from the Harbour Stores, courtesy of Styles, a local producer who make their wares, including a variety of ewe's milk ice creams and frozen desserts, on a nearby Exmoor Farm. We both decide to start our onerous challenge with the ewe's milk varieties, with a single cone of the strawberry for me and a double cone of chocolate and blueberry for the Ewing.

The strawberry - a flavour I normally find too sweet or weirdly artificial - was both clean and creamy while the blueberry was similarly fresh and fruity, but a little too floral and sweet for my tastes; the Ewing, however, loved it. The chocolate was a revelation; smooth and rich but not cloying and with a lovely bitter chocolate back note. Certainly one of the best we tried all week, and as a bonus the ewe's milk ice cream is also far lower in fat that the usual cows milk varieties. 

The first night saw a bit of a diversion from our original plans, instead of heading straight for Appledore, our base for the week, we were invited to stay with some friends in Bampton, on the edge of Exmoor. Needless to say there was much merriment and plenty of alcohol and, despite the best efforts of pints of hot tea and local sausages and bacon cooked in the Aga, the following morning was something of a struggle.

Luckily a bit of sunshine and a soothing sea breeze greeted us on our arrival in Appledore - a pretty quayside village on the Torridge estuary that has enough pubs to keep your interest but is pretty much on the road to nowhere, keeping the worst of the summer hordes at bay.

Carbs and cold Coca Cola were very much the order of the day, and after dumping the suitcases we walked down onto the quayside for some late lunch. Thankfully we quickly found John's, a deli/cafe with branches in both Appledore and across the water in Instow. John's may be as close to my idea of heaven as I'll find on earth; inside is a cornucopia of local products including shelves of beers, wines, biscuits, jams, chutneys and coffees; a counter groaning with homemade scones, flapjacks and brownies; and a chilled cabinet stuffed with cheese, fish, pies, pastries and tarts.

Choosing a takeaway so we could enjoy the fresh air and sunshine, we eschewed several of their other tempting crustacean-based products in order to go for the classic crab baguette. A majestical combo of crispy bread, crunchy salad, white and brown crab and lashing of Devonshire butter; salvation in a sandwich

When I was a child I always thought getting old meant the day you began to actually began to prefer ready salted crisps and vanilla ice cream above the myriad of other exciting flavour available, and vowed that that would never happen to me. Of course, now I am old(er) I have realised the pleasure of simple things (although I'm not sure I'll ever end my passionate love affair with pickled onion Monster Munch and Wotsits) and nothing highlights that more than Hockings, a North Devon institution.

Based in Appledore, Hockings have four vans posted around the vicinity selling one flavour, and one flavour only, classic vanilla. The vans are still wonderfully old fashioned and you can have your ice cream sandwiched in a wafer (with or without nougat), in an oyster, in a cup or in a cone.

It may have been the sea air, it may have been the sunshine, it may have been the stinking hangover, but this, without doubt, was one of the best ice creams I have had for a long time. I went with a wafer, a tricky customer to eat and pure nostalgia in every messy mouthful. The Ewing surpassed even herself with a triple cone topped with a heap of Devonshire clotted cream; sheer unbridled gluttony that necessitated an afternoon nap but was worth every calorie. 

If you want to cause ripples in a quaint Victorian seaside town then surely the best way is to commission Brit Art’s l'enfant terrible to create a giant statue of a naked pregnant woman for the harbour. Well, that's exactly what they did in the sleepy town of Illfracombe, cue our visit to see 'Verity', the opinion polarising stainless steel and bronze statue by Damian Hirst, for ourselves.

Taller than the Angel of the North, and with its exposed cut-through of Verity’s inner-workings, it’s certainly a conversation piece, although I think I preferred the views across the dark blue waters to Lundy Island, seen as we walked around the cliff path from the town beach.

Lunch was a brace of these gigantic beauties at Espresso (a slightly strange name for a very good little seasonal bistro, a short walk from the seafront) served with a glorious homemade mayo, crisp fries and a wonderfully sweet tomato and onion salad.

After a hour or so of cracking, picking and delving amongst the shells of these beasts came the first, and possibly only time, I have ever seen the Ewing down her pick as she reached Peak Crab. Yes, it is true, there can be (almost) too much of a good thing. Thankfully a good walk in the sea air around the cliffs and past Henry Williams house (the author of Tarka the Otter), even bumping in to a friend's mum who I last saw at my sister's wedding en route, sharpened our appetite for another frozen desert.

As we were in Devon, what could be more appropriate than, err, gelato from Turin (It did come highly recommended by said friend's mum). We share a cone of coffee and Bronte pistachio flavour. The latter - checkout the lustrous, almost metallic shine of the sweet nut infused custard - being peerless amongst most pistachio ice creams I have eaten; matching (and even surpassing most) of those I have enjoyed on holiday in Italy.

The next day saw a group outing and the first stop was Clovelly -  the privately owned, pedestrianised fishing village known for its steeply cobbled main street, donkeys and sledge-pulled deliveries and somewhere I had first visited with my family many moons before. An unusually early start proved a bonus, as the steep cobbled main street that lead down to the quay were almost deserted, and the late August sun felt almost Mediterranean against the wattle and daub houses and blue seas beyond.

My, elephant memoried, father recollected a small seafood purveyor down by the quayside on our last visit, and, lo and behold, it soon came into sight as we descended the last stretch of cobbles. Alongside our daily dose of fresh crab - a good blend of meaty white flesh and the iron-rich dark meat - I couldn't resist a pot of cockles, doused in plenty of malt vinegar and white pepper.

Ice cream number one, this was a big day for frozen dairy-based deserts, was a scoop of Dunstaple Farm clotted cream vanilla, replete with a good old chocolate flake. This was a classic West Country ice cream, made on a farm near Holsworthy, complete with that unique yellow tinge that the rich cream adds to the mix. Very nice, although the Ewing, despite the refusal of a cone of her own, seemed to have little problem helping me demolish it.

Lunch was enjoyed overlooking the stunning spot above, at the foot of Tintagel castle on the North Cornish coast. Alongside a Famous Five-esque feast of bread, cold meats and cheeses, we also queued for an interminably long time in Tintagel village for a trio of pasties from the Pengenna Bakery; two traditional steak and veg and a steak and Stilton for the Ewing. The joy of a piping hot pastry and a fresh sea breeze is a combo that would struggle to be beaten.

To get back from the Castle we had to pass the Helsett Farm trailer. Knowing that they were based just own the road near Boscastle, it seemed remiss not to stop by for a scoop. This time it was the Ewing's choice of a, rather unusual and beautifully hued, blackcurrant and cream flavour. Unlike earlier, where I was more than happy to share, she proved more territorial. I can, however, report that the couple of licks I did manage to snatch went down very nicely.

Final stop of the day was lovely Padstow. After a mosey around the bustling harbour - with the crowds spilling from the assorted pasty shops and Rick Stein's chippy - we headed down to the beach where the acres of golden sand were only punctuated two gnarly fisherman. 

After a scramble over the rocks quick paddle - out in the distance, in the harbour entrance, lies the mythical Doombar, for which the Sharp's beer is named - we had worked up enough appetite to head back to the harbour to complete our hat trick of ice creams.

Every time I visit this town I always stop for at least one cone from Roskilly's, and this time was no different. With flaours ranging from Cream Tea to Gooseberry Yogurt Ice, it was a tricky decision, but the Ewing and I finally plumped on sharing a scoop of Malty Mystery (see picture right at the top of the post), a marvellous mix of malt, cream and chocolate pieces.

Dad chose a tub of the Cornish Fairing, with a big whack of ginger spice and crunchy biscuit pieces, while Shelly went with the classic strawberry in a choc dipped cone. Great ices in a lovely setting.

Wednesday saw a trip to the coastal towns of Lynmouth (at the bottom) and Lynton (at the top). To traverse between the two we queued up for the cliff railway, a water powered (from the nearby Lyn River) funicular railway that lifts you 500 feet on a 58% gradient. Which why I had earlier passed on the Ewing's suggestion of walking up the steps.

Our reward when we reached the top was a late lunch in the gardens of Lacey's Tea Rooms where both went for the special, spicy fishcakes with chips and salad, washed down with a large pot of West Country tea. This was good, simple English cooking -  hot and crisp chips and crab cakes, with a nice tickle of spice, served with a pleasingly old fashioned salad including pickled beetroot, homemade coleslaw and retro mustard cress.

The efforts expended walking back along the cliff path necessitated an ice cream from Mavis Thrupton's hut in Lynmouth harbour. I went with Britain's first 'spaghetti' ice cream ( a Mr Whippy by any other name) while the Ewing had a double scoop of Cointeu an orange ice cream with chocolate chunks. While mine was decent enough, if lacking some strawberry 'tomato' sauce to really recreate the proper Italian noodle based effect, the Ewing wasn't very fond of hers (of course, she didn't stop it going to waste, though...).

To negate any disappointment we walked up the road to the next ice cream parlour, there's a big choice in Lynmouth, where I had a cone of the, deservedly, 'award winning!' Caravel Fudge Royale. The Ewing plumped for a scoop of good old chocolate - this time with added 'cream crunch', in the form of Oreo-esque biscuit pieces - guaranteed to always hit the spot. 

The weather began to break on the penultimate day, reverting back to that familiar old English drizzle. Perfect for our hike around Lydford Gorge and down to the waterfall, where the Ewing tried to hijack the pooh stick competition by attempting to fling in a tree trunk.

The star of a picnic lunch, much needed to fortify us for our hike, was a crab and ginger quiche, again from our friends at John's of Appledore. This was their quiche of the month, and certainly one of the nicest I have eaten. A topping of South Devon chilli jam was especially inspired.

Also a huge thumbs up for the very kind man at the cafe, who held the doors open past five o o'clock so we could call in for an ice cream on the return leg through the gorge. I'm not sure that passion fruit sorbet counts as an ice cream, but, after scrambling over mossy rocks and through muddy streams, I'm not sure I care.

It wouldn't be a holiday without a swim in the sea, so we headed across the Torridge to Instow on our final morning so the Ewing could freeze her toes, and various other appendages, off. Sensibly, I stayed dry by assuming the esteemed job of clothes/towel carrier and general dogsbody.

Lunch was a hat-trick from John's, this time at their Instow branch, with their crab pate, crackers and Cornish tomatoes eaten on the harbour wall. We also nabbed slices of millionaire's shortbread, and a syrup-soaked orange and polenta cake for the drive back; and, most importantly, a squealer pork pie from Chunk's of Devon. Currently My New Favourite thing.

The final fling on our #crabandicecreamchallenge was a stop at the Quince Honey Farm in South Molten on our way back home. After buying up essential supplies of Exmoor honey, beeswax candles and honey hand cream we sat outside to enjoy some of their honey ice creams.

They offer three flavours; honey with fudge, honey with honeycombe and straight honey, all made for them at Dunstaple Farm (see my ice cream at Clovelly) and all featuring a mix both their Exmoor heather honey and Devon flower honey. An unusual and subtle flavour with a hint of 'chewiness' in the finished ice cream that proved very pleasant.

And so the sun finally set on our fish and frozen dairy based adventure. A week that also featured much laughter, a bitter and pork scratching baptism for the Aussie contingent, late night chips by the harbour, morris dancing, brass bands by the seafront and some decent English weather. Even the Ewing, despite both being on holiday with her in-laws and getting a daily dose of crabs, couldn't help but succumb to the Devonian charms.

Friday, 5 September 2014

Bump Caves and Bocadillos

With a recent long, late summer's weekend stretching out in front of us it seemed the perfect chance to completely the final piece of the beer puzzle on the Bermondsey Mile - as well as the chance to pop in to some old haunts alongside trying some trendy new cocktails in what has become one of my favourite corners of town.

Before the last IPA was imbibed at Brew by Numbers, we stopped at St John’s new Bakery Room (on the other side of the arches that churn out their famed bread and pastries) for some cop-like breakfast fortification in the form of coffee and their famed doughnuts.

Alongside the fabulous raspberry jam filled number we also sampled a butterscotch custard (I had first eaten one of these a couple of weeks before, but buying it on a very hot day, followed by a couple of nights in Stealth's fridge, rendered the outside tough and the insides curdled - needless to say, I still ate it, though). Thankfully this one was creamy, crispy, gooey perfection and paired nicely with a coffee.

Those prefering to start the day with the strong stuff can take advantage of the short French wine list, or enjoy seed cake and Maderia for elevenses. They also serve a selection of St John greatest hits - think pig's ears, tripe and cod's roe - for lunch.

Beers successfully drunk in the arches and we were back on Maltby Street again, this time to Bar Tozino, another gem of a place I first discovered a couple of winters ago on my first visit to the Ropewalk. It’s still as fab as ever; the velvet draped heavy oak doors leading into a long thin dark cave (as Iberian as anywhere I have been to outside Spain) lined with glistening hams and bottles of wine and sherry.

Here we lunched very well, as always, on a selection of green olives, Los Pedroches Bellota jamon, padron peppers, manchego flavoured with rosemary and pan con tomate; all washed down with a half bottle of icy cold, slightly salty, Manzanilla sherry. If you can get a seat near the front, you’ll also be treated to a ham show as the fat-flecked pink slices are artfully carved to order.

After stopping for a couple of sweet treats, a salted caramel Bad Brownie for the Ewing and a choc chip cookie for me, we made our way across London Bridge to see the new installation at the Tower of London - passing these cuddly fellas on the way, who look like they had already imbibed one too many shandies.

Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red - an installation marking the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War and created by ceramic artist Paul Cummins - will see 888,246 ceramic poppies, the first laid on the centenary of the Great War and the last due to be planted on 11th November this year, that will progressively fill the Tower’s famous moat.

It's a pretty a pretty sobering sight, as well as a moving piece of art in its own right, and is well worth making time to go and see; you can even volunteer to help 'plant' the poppies. Every evening, the Last Post will be played at sunset and the public are asked to nominate a member of the Commonwealth forces who was killed in the First World War to have their name read out in the nightly ceremony. The ceramic poppies are also available to buy after the installation ends for £25, with proceeds going to a range of service charities in the UK.

Final stop was for cocktails at Bump Caves, the new bar in the basement of a favourite old haunt, the Draft House on Tower Bridge road. We couldn't go down stairs without enjoying at least one beer in the sunshine, alongside some of their famed foot-long pork scratchings  - the 'deliciousest' around, and who am I to argue - and a must order whenever I visit.

Accessed by a door to the left of the Draft House, or down their stairs by the, shared, loos, Bump Caves is a Sixties inspired underground bar that, in the words of owner, Charlie McVeigh, is 'inspired by the late-Sixties psychedelic movement, Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, light shows, freedom, the destruction of phoney Fifties morality, ear-melting music and hallucinogenic drugs.'

It sounds, frankly, a tiny bit rubbish. Thankfully in real life Bump Caves is far more understated and laid-back than its raison d'être would suggest. While touches of neon give it a kinda groovy vibe there’s also plenty of modern tiling and shiny leather rather than tie dyes and sheepskin. Sadly there are no hallucinogenic drugs, but luckily – for those of a rapidly advancing age such as ourselves - there’s no ear-melting music either.

Max Chater, barman or “Chemist, Distiller and Rectifier” was there to greet us on our visit and remains sweetly enthusiastic despite the appearance of a bedraggled Stealth - who has arrived to join us for a quick G’n’T and remains a hard nut to crack at the best of times (these are not the best of times).

As the Ewing is on their mailing list, the first round of drinks, a house ‘bumped’ Gin and Tonic - with hop infused gin and house made tonic - is provided gratis in return for some emailed feedback later. It’s served in a flute, something which Stealth is immediately dubious about, but I rather like it. The flavours are mellow – there’s no rasp of juniper of throat tickle from the quinine, but it’s fragrant and the gentle carbonation means it slips down easily as a salve from the hot fuggy streets of the city above us.

Stealth downs hers pretty quickly and without (much) complaint, but after Max comes to talk to us about what we thought, she remains resolutely stubborn in her request for something ‘fizzy and with lime’; Heathen. Luckily he hits the jackpot with a large measure of the strong stuff, plenty of citrus fruit and a bottle of Fever tree. Job’s a good ‘un.

My next drink is the signature Electric Kool Aid Acid Test, described on the menu as Bump malt, Campari, C&PP, sparkling Piquepoul, 9V and acid - which, while looking rather naughty with its bag of white powder clipped to the side, is essentially a large glass of rose, served with a battery alongside.

The whole thing is pretty fun though; the powder (citric acid) gives the drink a little welcome fizz, and while I may have given up battery licking years ago (since the good old days of my Tomy Lights Alive) there is something childishly addictive about the fizz you get from putting it on your tongue. Not a drink for everyone perhaps, but strangely addictive.

I'll be honest, the name of the Ewing's second drink has been lost to the excitement of the evening. I do know that it was served with a 'bump' of white chocolate, and both beverage and confectionery were dispatched before I could taste them. The surest sign of success.

Her night was rounded off with a Schiz-A-Colada, a mixture of white rum, pineapple and creme anglaise (custard for plebs like me), served with a coconut vapour filled e-cigarette. A pina colada gone mad, as the tile suggests, and good fun if you miss a crafty puff indoors.

My final drink was a beer and a 'bump' pairing of a To Øl Blossom wheat beer from Denmark - flavoured with three hops and six dried flowers -served with a bump of any icy cold distillate infused with a dill and some other magical (aka, I can't remember) things. A pleasingly Scandi combination and surprisingly both refreshing and fortifying.

While I think I still prefer the beers and pork products served above ground at the Draft House, Bump Caves is a great subterranean spot with charming service. Perfect for an interesting drink, or even a sniff, a lick or a dab outside the long arm of the law.

The evening ended with the perfect drunken train sandwich, a remarkably well preserved ham and tomato bocadillo from Bar Tozino, a salty, crunchy, juicy masterpiece and proving, after a evening of fancy new experiences, that often the simplest things are still the best.