Wednesday, 20 March 2019

Curry for breakfast

One thing I do love about being a proper grown up is that you can wake up on a Saturday morning and decide you're going to have a curry for breakfast. Which is probably marginally less fun than eating a curry late on a Friday night and sleeping through Saturday morning, which comprised of most of my early twenties, but makes me feel slightly less resentful about not being able to sleep the clock around any more.

While my favourite Sri Lankan place is just down the road and makes superlative chole bhature (fried bread and chickpea curry), I fancied something a bit different. Somehow I also managed to persuade the Ewing that she also wanted something a bit different That something starting with driving around the M25 while listening to me singing along to my 90s indie playlist and ending up at the veritable New Asian Tandoori Restaurant - aka Roxy's - in Southall for some traditional Punjabi food.

From the list of chaats (small, savoury snacks) we started with pani puri, or, as it's known in the Punjab, golgappa. A dish that's fun to say, and even more fun to eat. 

To do so you take a crisp, hollow puri, carefully make a hole in the top and stuff it with a mixture of chilli, chutney, potato, onion and chickpeas. To finish, top it off with a glug of tamarind water (known as imli pani), and quickly pop the whole thing in your mouth with as much decorum as you can manage. In my case, not much.

While I like to think there are few curry dishes I haven't tried (I've certainly eaten enough curries), in reality I'm a mere pretender when it comes to the cuisine of the Indian sub-continent. In reality this is only a good thing as it means I still get to discover new dishes, even if I'm only twenty miles from home.

Today's new dishes were  sarson ka saag, or mustard greens, traditionally served with makki ki roti, an unleavened grilled corn bread topped with lashings of butter. Mustard greens are traditionally eaten in winter and spring, so we were bang in season to enjoy their rich earthiness. Perfect when scooped up with pieces of the sweet, smoky grilled roti, which resembled a giant Mexican tortilla and was none the worse for it.

Another Punjabi favourite, only available here at the weekends, is dal makhani, or 'buttery lentils'. Made from whole black lentils (urad) and red kidney beans the dish gets its richness from lashings of butter and cream. 

As it's tomato-based, the sauce resembled a spiced version of Heinz tomato soup. Which, everybody knows, is the best soup. I'd try to fool myself by saying the lentils made this healthy, but we all know this contained more glorious dairy than the EU butter mountain.

We tried to order a Punjabi chicken curry but that wasn't ready, so settled for chilli chicken instead. An admirable substantiation, this was excellent -  a sweet, rich, almost sticky sauce full of juicy chunks of chicken. I didn't even mind the odd piece of green pepper, a vegetable that normally conspires to ruin any dish they get near.

To finish we could have gone down the Broadway for chunks of burfi - a dense milky fudge, often studded with nuts - or some gulab jamun - curls of fried batter soaked in a sweet sugar syrup that are freshly fried out on the busy street - but I'm still eschewing the sugar. 

Instead we nibbled on a handful of breath-freshening fennel seed, paid the, very modest, bill and went down the road to see the house where the Ewing's mum grew up. Even with our impromptu tour the advantage of being up and out so early meant we were still back home in good time for lunch.

Thursday, 14 March 2019

Let's put on our classics and have a little dance, shall we...

Stealth has moved (part-time) to Margate. The last time we were both here together was over two decades ago, when I was at uni up the road and Stealth came to visit. We were somehow organised enough to join my house mates on a trip to the sea that involved bleak concrete, gale force winds and a hangover.

This time only the latter was accurate. And although Arlington House still dominates the skyline the shopping centre at the foot of the tower has been razed to the ground and the whole town has a pep in its step, buoyed by the Turner Gallery, the growing art scene and the DFLs (down from Londons) who have streamed to the coast, attracted by the East Kent property prices, bracing sea air and neighbours who want to stop and chat to you (I'm not sure this was a plus point, in Stealth's case).

We enjoyed a lovely few days with Stealth and Regina, the perfect hosts, that included delicious scallops and picpoul de pinet at Hantverk and Found; confit duck nuggets and chocolate orange martinis at the Cinq Ports; and Stealth's (homemade) lamb curry with (not homemade) peshwari naan All washed down with Aldi champagne, Stealth's new favourite tipple. Austerity has finally hit the City.

As I'm predicting a surfeit of Thanet-related posts (I sense another micropub crawl by the sea in my near future) coming up on the blog over the next few months, I'm going to kick things off with (re)visits to a few old school Kentish classics.

First up was the Dalby Cafe, a stalwart that has been on the corner of Dalby Square in Cliftonville since just after the Second World war, still with the original formica tables and seats reclaimed from the old Margate trams that trundled along the seafront.

Coincidentally seen in an article featuring a rather wan Pete Doherty (excitingly now residing in Stealth's very neighbourhood) taking down their super-sized breakfast a few weeks before our visit. While I wasn't sure I could take down a plate that included four sausages, four rashers, bubble and squeak, hash browns, toast and a burger and chips (I'm pretty sure the Ewing could), I was looking forward to something slightly more modest, if no less delicious.

The menu focuses on their all day breakfast, but also offers stalwarts such as braised steak, cottage pie, scampi, corned beef and a good-looking plate of fish and chips, which the chaps on the table next to me were enthusiastically slathering in salad cream and tucking in to at half ten in the morning.

The Ewing, not known for her great memory, managed to get to the counter and accurately reel off the list of things I had requested (plus the same, with an egg, for her) to be told; 'that sounds like a medium'. Six quid. Including toast and a proper mug of strong builder's tea. Cracking value. 

The reward for her excellent recollection was a proper tasty plate of piping hot food featuring quality bacon and snags - while I'm a sucker for a tube of meat paste, this one had herbs in so you could tell it was fancy - plus two big discs of black pud, excellent fried mushrooms and both baked beans and tinned toms for lubrication. Proper butter on the toast also got both thumbs up from my wife.

Monday morning saw us left to our own devices. So, after my enormously patient wife had driven through a bog, reversed all the way up an endless single track road and then back down another 'road' in pursuit of the Ham Sandwich finger post (worth every swear word and sweaty palm) we retreated to Morelli's in Broadstairs for a well needed fillip.

Opened in 1932, the interior of the original Morelli's - there is now a concession in Harrods, stores in Covent Garden and Portabello Road and franchises in the Middle East - has remained resolutely faithful to the past with its art deco interior, complete with ornate ceiling, sugar pink leather banquettes, Lloyd Loom rattan chairs, formica topped tables and a classic soda fountain. (and the ice cream cone shaped brass lamps - TE).

They offer a variety of different sundaes and coupes, but the Ewing kept it simple with a trio of pistachio, hazelnut and coffee gelatos. Despite my sugar moratorium I may have tried a couple of spoonfuls of both the nutty ones, and I was very glad I did. The pistachio in particular was utterly exceptional.

Alongside was a decent dry double macchiato for me and a, slightly odd, DIY bicerin for the Ewing, with separate glasses of cream and chocolate sauce to mix in with her coffee. While paling in comparison to the peerless version at Soho's Bar Torino, she still appreciated the surfeit chocolate coffee beans that accompanied it.

I can remember coming to Margate on the train with an ex, as penniless students for a romantic day by the sea. Obviously it was cold and grey with buffeting winds (as all my memories of Margate were) but, being Brits, we decided fish and chips by the beach was the order of the day.

We chose Peter's Fish Factory as not only was it near the harbour, but was offering a deal on 'saithe' and chips. Neither of us had any idea what this mystery fish was (prosaically, it later turned out to be pollock), but it was cheap and sounded exotic and tasted extra good with the smell of sea air in our nostrils, despite the added sand in every other bite. 

This time Peter's had a deal offering the more familiar haddock and chips for £4.50, and the Ewing was dispatched to fetch them while I dashed across the road to take some pictures of Dreamland and the mighty Arlington House in the afternoon sunshine.

I've eaten some very average fish and chips recently, but these were absolutely top-tier. Skin on (we are in the south) haddock with a thin carapace of peerless batter with a scoop of properly cooked chips - nicely golden with a fluffy inner. All seasoned with lashings of salt and vinegar and accompanied by the biggest pickled wally I'd seen since I looked in the mirror that morning. Oh, and a Diet Coke to wash it down. Got to think of the diet.

This was the view while eating lunch - the blue plaque you can see in the corner commemorates TS Eliot 'who wrote part of the poem the Wasteland whilst sitting in the Nayland Rock Shelter'. Although why the plaque wasn't affixed to the shelter where we sat, instead of being attached to the public loo next door, remains a mystery. 

I'll leave you with two photos of Stealth and I, taken on Margate beach 20 years apart. How they let us out like that, I'm not sure (escapees - TE). Although things haven't improved all that much. On Margate sands. I can connect. Nothing with nothing, as Thomas Stearns said himself.

Thursday, 28 February 2019

Douze huîtres

When we originally picked Leap Day as the day to finally tie the knot not having to celebrate annually seemed one of the selling points. Until I realised my wife actually wanted to celebrate on the last day of February and the first day of March. Roll on a few years and the lack of a definite day means the celebrations seem to now extend over a space of weeks.

Which is how we found ourselves at Bar Boulud, for a fancy lunch before seeing Massive Attack performing Mezzanine. Between realising one of my favourite albums is over twenty years old and I’ve been married for seven years (or one and three quarters, if you want to be pedantic about it) I felt sufficiently decrepit and was fully in need of a strong drink.

I fancied a dirty martini, which seems to have become a bit of an anniversary tradition, and while there is huge range of gins behind the bar, for reasons I couldn't fathom only a handful are actually listed on the drinks menu. Which seemed even stranger when the wine list resembled a volume of the Encyclopedia Britannica.

Of the suggestions made by our waiter the Cambridge gin stood out as one we hadn't tried (or didn't have hoarded in the cupboard under the stairs at home) although it wasn't until he bought our drinks that he told us the back story of this being the first truffle infused - with the prized white variety from Alba - gin on the market. So caveat emptor if you don't like your drinks with an earthy and funky edge. I thought it was delicious, although I was still tasting fungi for hours afterwards.

Despite not really ever managing to find raw oysters anything more than 'meh', I was keen we had a dozen to share anyway. The Ewing, who knows exactly what I'm like (I normally eat one and then declare I am done) suggested six, but I was hell-bent on a dozen and had spent the morning saying douze huîtres in a more and more flamboyant French accent, until she gave in just to get me to stop.

You can see I looked pretty pleased when the huîtres arrived. Probably as I hadn't eaten one yet although I was steeling myself with the fact that the glutamate levels of oysters (providing the umami hit) are apparently highest in February and March, imbibing them with even more natural MSG. These looked lean and lithe and briny, although I think I'd have found anything sexy after drinking enough of the heady truffled gin.

While raw oysters aren't my fave I love vinegar with an unholy passion, so a spoonful of mignonotte sauce helped two of my four happily down. Followed by one with lemon and one au naturel, which confirmed that snot that tastes like you've been sea swimming is still not really my thing. 

That left the Ewing with huit huîtres, which sounds like the perfect number when said in an annoying cod french accent. Well, it kept me amused. She enjoyed hers greatly, slurping and chewing happily between crusty hunks of bread and butter.

The burger was really what we were there for and I chose the flagship BB Burger - beef patty, foie gras and short ribs stuffed into a black onion seed bun with confit tomato, salad and horseradish mayo. The best way I can think to describe it is high-end basic. Quality ingredients compiled to taste like an excellent, messy ole burger, that drips down your wrists as you grapple with it – full points for bun integrity, that lasted until the last bite - and makes best advantage of the freshly laundered napkins. 

The smoky patty was nicely pink (medium rare is the furthest they will go), the slick foie gras, although subtle, added further layers of richness and shredded short rib added some toothsome oomph. The confit tomato was a necessary addition to cut a swath through the richness, but sadly the expected sinus prickle of horseradish was too faint to play a supporting role.

Is it ever worth paying twenty four quid for a burger and chips? Debatable when I could have bought 16 of my beloved  McDonalds double cheeseburgers with extra pickles, or three (and a mouthful) of Bleecker's bacon cheeseburgers or two and a half Dead Hippies. Although those prices are without fries and don’t come with a wine list that includes a Baron Thenard Montrachet 2008 at 125 pounds a glass to help it down. 

The Ewing wasn’t up for going halves, so I can only piece together what her Piggie (17 quid) burger - topped with pulled pork and housed in a cheddar bun - was like from her comments, which included ‘spicy’ (from the jalapeño mayo) and ‘beefy’. Probably good that she proof reads this blog, rather than writing it. Although she’s far less verbose than me (and more sarcastic - TE), so maybe a rare treat for the reader…. 

She did have lots of positive words for the chips, mainly they were comparable with Maccy d’s, her benchmark for a good fry. They also give you a ramekin of proper ketchup, not some sort of posh artisan chutney that always tastes of sweet sadness.

As everybody now knows I’m an anti-sugar evangelist (bore - TE) and love to tell everyone at every opportunity I’ve quit the piles of the white stuff (obviously I’m joking, there is literally nothing less interesting than people telling you what they eat/don’t eat). While my resolve remains pretty much intact (honey roasted cashews definitely don’t count) I had already decided the lure of the soufflé du jour was probably going to be too much to resist.

My intention was to share with the Ewing, but as it happened she couldn’t resist the lure of the Pom-Passion - with hazelnut dacquoise, roasted apple sorbet, passion fruit jelly and vanilla mousse - so we ordered both. The apple desert was fine, if a little sweet (not unsurprisingly) for me. I gamefully managed a couple of half-forkfuls, just to be sure, although I did like the mouth-puckering intensity of the passionfruit jelly.

Despite asking what the soufflé was on two occasions neither of us had any idea what the waiter actually said in reply. Being English, we ordered it anyway and were rewarded with the an ethereal confection that tasted just as majestic as it looked. The soufflé was definitely orange-based, possibly Grand Marnier (from Googling it, that’s what Jay ate here when they first opened) although it didn’t taste especially boozy. Although nothing would after that martini. The ice cream was defiantly chocolate, and went nicely with the orange, if you like that sort of thing, which I very much do, although I still let my wife polish most of it off.

It's been said that marriage is like a souffle; beautiful, satisfying and fragile. Although, quite honestly, I'd go with too much sometimes make you feel sick and leaves you deflated (harsh - TE). Not sure that would shift as many Hallmark cards though. Still, there's no one else I want to take long afternoon naps with when half-cut on a Friday afternoon (me neither - TE). Which is exactly what we did after finishing this. Here's to many more years of sleeping and eating with my very favourite person. (Hear, Hear! Chin, chin - TE)

Wednesday, 20 February 2019

Squiffy in Summertown

I never really found this time of year particularly endearing when I was growing up. It’s still cold, still muddy, still not light enough to play outside after dinner. The lengthening days means the snow doesn't settle, yet still it falls (normally while I was doing cross country in running shorts and an aertex t shirt). Most of my memories are waiting with a child-like impatience for something good to actually happen. 

Now I’ve slowed down a little, although no less impatient, I can appreciate the subtle changes that herald a new year rolling around. The wonderful pale light that bathes everything in a Northern Renaissance glow as the sun climbs a little higher in the sky each day. Then the first of the snowdrops peeking through, followed by crocuses followed by daffs followed by bluebells followed by blossom.

In another nod to the rituals of growing older, we seem to have started taking an annual late winter pilgrimage to Oxford, which always seems a touch too early to see my favourite blossom – the pink blooms on the almond tree outside the church of St Mary the Virgin on the High Street - in its full splendour. This year, however, we made up for it by taking a lovely walk along the canal path in the low sun for Sunday lunch at Pompette in Summerstown.

Currently the critics' darling, the space at Pompette is split into half restaurant, half wine bar the former offering a tight menu of French classics, the latter a separate selection of snacks and charcuterie. As I fancied a relaxed afternoon of getting sloshed (the name is the French for tipsy) and eating a variety of cured meats and fried things, we chose the latter option, a good call as we ended up with all the warmth and atmosphere without the slight starchiness of the other side of the room.

We started with glorious bread and glorious salted butter and more glorious salt to sprinkle on the salted butter and all accompanied by a cold bottle of Austrian pet nat, as that’s what all the cool kids drink. I thought it tasted like funky cider, The Ewing thought it tasted of ‘funky grapes’, both of us enjoyed it a great deal as we are obviously still cool, if slipping further and further away from our youth.

The cervelles de canut -  a fromages blanc flavoured with herbs, shallots, cider vinegar & walnut oil – has got to be the best thing (fifty pence under) a fiver can get you in North Oxford, or North just about anywhere. A Lyonnaise favourite, the name translates as "silk worker's brain", after the canuts, or weavers, who worked in the city; thankfully the dish itself is far less gruesome than it’s moniker might suggest.

The aforementioned glorious bread here has been turned into crisp, golden toasts for dunking, with the only disadvantage being the airy holes give the cheese more escape routes as you move mouthwards.

Anchovy, shallot & butter toasts were yet another incarnation for the humble loaf, and possibly the best of all; lightly toasted and topped with a slab of butter you could leave teeth marks in (the correct depth, according to my wife) and topped with plump salty anchovies and small rounds of sweet shallot. An unassailable combination one I’m already excitedly thinking of replicating in the garden with a cold bottle of rose come the first sniff of summer.

Croquettes were crisp breadcrumbed nuggets of wobbly fried bechamel, studded with chunks of superlative ham. Available per piece, I could easily have taken down a dozen. In the back ground you can see a superlative celeriac remoulade; an unassuming looking dish of the finely shredded root veg in a creamy dressing that packed a huge mustardy and caper-flecked punch.

Terrine maison — classic pork, chicken and veal terrine with pistachios, was a stunner looks wise but could have possibly benefited from a little more time warming up before I launched in. That impatient streak again.

Alongside the terrine came a large terracotta jar with a pair of wooden tongs and the announcement; ‘cornichons, for you’. Possibly the three most romantic words in the English language. Certainly the three most dangerous, as an unlimited supply of pickled cucumbers to accompany the cured pork products saw me eating well into double figures, as attested by the Zantac later that evening.

Cornichons also came adorning the plate of duck rillettes. Originally the Ewing wanted to eschew either these or the terrine, but I pressed for both and was rewarded with what I named ‘rillettes face’; the look of joy when she had scooped up some shredded meat and a little pickle onto a crust of bread and popped it in her mouth. The fact it was initially neglected, due to a surfeit of other goodies, allowing it to warm up a little also helped boost unctuousness.

'Green salad' was tacked onto the end of the order to try and make myself feel better about eating my greens. I'm not sure the wonderful creamy dressing had any tangible health benefits, but it tasted bloody good. 

You would think after such vasts amounts of food even my wife would be satisfied but, after finishing the second basket of bread she forlornly proclaimed 'is that all' in a mournful Pooh--like voice, before confessing she briefly thought the succulent decorating the table was another dish we had ordered. She was only thwarted when she inspected it a little closer and realised it was still potted in soil.

Luckily, and this was a pre-requisite on eating in the bar, puddings could be ordered on both sides of the divide, and the Ewing was most excited by the kirsch choux bun with Griottine cherries and hot chocolate sauce  and, despite my sugar ban, I was excited for her. While the first attempt arrived sans crème pat the second bun was plump with custard and gave her another chance to anoint it with the jug of hot chocolate sauce it came served with; immensely satisfying, even just to watch.

Obviously I was still being superciliously smug about not eating sugar, before promptly ordering a glass of Sauternes that was pretty much liquid honey, and quaffing a good bit of the Ewing's port - Graham's Six Grapes - for good measure.

A wonderful lunch with wonderful company; and another reason to love this time of year is the light flooding through the window that made my wife postprandially glow in the most lovely way - ably aided and abetted by all the desert wine.