Wednesday, 17 April 2019

I like the way you murk it

Sun is shining, weather is sweet; well, it was a couple of weekends ago, when we made the trip to the charming town of Cheltenham. A town boasting some of the best Regency architecture in England (I made the Ewing hang around a council car park, while I took pictures of the concrete) it's also home of cult brewery Deya. Found, like all good breweries, tucked away on a quiet trading estate and handily near to Cheltenham Spa railway station.

You may also notice the discombobulating nature of the pictures, which veer from night to day and back again through this post. Which, I think, artfully adds to the feeling of an afternoon drinking session that extends into the night. Looking back through my camera roll when I came to write about our evening, it's more of a wonder I had any photos that I could use. Although I did have several of the Ewing going for a wee in the bushes (sadly, now deleted, although maybe for the best) there is no privacy these days - TE.

Deya are best known for their hazy beers, which lean toward the New England style, rather than the piney astringency of the West coast IPAs. They describe them on the website as 'soft, hoppy beers' and, if you are into your murk, then this is the place to be. Although, as you can see from the menu 'other liquids' are available.

Things started very demurely, in shirt sleeves drinking a pint of Steady Rolling Man, their flagship hazy pale ale weighing in at 5.2 per cent, this is becoming a benchmark of all hazy pale ales. The Ewing had a pint of Just a Glimmer, their session pale ale at a more modest 4 per cent and super easy to drink in the sunshine.

I won't bore you with the minutiae of every beer we tasted (I think we got through them all, bar the Tappy Pils, despite it being lager weather) but, if you're not on Untappd, here are a few buzz words to give you the general idea; hop yogurt, pineapple, mango, murky, hop bomb, hazy, tropical, juicy banger etc. etc.

Food come in the form of a roster of rotating food vendors which, on our visit were Mission Pizza - wood-fired pizza slingers who specialise in vegetarian and vegan pies. 

While I'm not absolutely sure I want to give up my mozzarella for cashew nut cheese any time soon, I'm a big fan of a meatless pizza (or any kind of pizza in all honesty) and I was very excited by their menu which featured the 2000s supermarket classic of spinach and ricotta, pimped up with pine nuts and truffle oil; and a spicy choice with chilli oil, chilli flakes and jalapenos.

But in the end the choice was a no-brainer - the wild garlic leaves, wild garlic pesto and nettles with caramelised onion and mozzarella cheese. This was an excellent pizza with a perfectly puffy, chewy crust, bitter greens and sweet onion. My only criticism was it was perhaps a little too sweet. Some of the aforementioned chilli flakes or a slick of spicy oil wouldn't have gone amiss. 

After our pizza we moved on to a crisp chaser - the delicious Torres Iberico ham flavour - with another pint of murk, this time the Into the haze IPA. This was followed by the 'last beer' of the night; the Old Evil Spirit, a roasty, malty imperial stout with a healthy dollop of dark fruits and cocoa.

Unfortunately they only served this in halves and not thirds. Normally I'd say that but not really mean it, but on this occasion an eleven per center, that slipped down with nary a hint of booze, probably signified the beginning of the end.

Of course, that wasn't the end of things. On returning to the bar to buy some cans to take home the Ewing got coerced into buying another round of delicious DIPAS, plus yet more crisps, this time the black truffle flavour.  Funky and deep and a little bit salty; and the crisps were pretty good too.

I'm not entirely sure what happened on the way back but I know it involved going to the kebab shop; getting stuck in the kebab shop; buying a lighter; losing a lighter, losing my earphones (found the next morning with the help of Toby the three-legged dog TE); getting caught short; dancing in the street (in my Beavertown beanie, no less) and, as the pièce de résistance, getting lost in the garden of a nursing home.

Thankfully we did make it back, although the saddest part of the whole trip came on waking up at the hotel the morning after. After spending a few minutes wondering where I was and wondering if I would ever feel ok again, I realised that the hard won kebab that I had carefully carried home remained uneaten. On the plus side some enormously fragile glassware, see the top of the picture, we had bought along with the beer was still somehow intact.

Of course, missing out on my bedtime snack made popping next door for the all you can eat Harvester breakfast (with an extra rump steak and an endless stack of buttered crumpets with Marmite) even more welcome.

All in all a perfect weekend and perfect training for our imminent trip Down Under, where the Ewing and I are going to hit the Inner West beer crawl, as we did on our last visit two years ago. Only this time I hope to actually remember enough of it to be able to write it all up on here. Wish me luck....

Thursday, 4 April 2019

Get that bread

Writing a blog (or certainly this blog) is about 45 per cent trying to avoid the most obvious cliches, 45 per cent repeating yourself and ten per cent actually writing original, witty content. I appreciate the latter figure could be seen to be a little generous.

One of my least favourite cliches - and also one I probably repeat the most - is the classic; 'has been on  my radar for a while'. While it is often invariably true - there will always be an, ever-expanding, list of places I want to visit at any given moment - it is also more hackneyed than a taxi rank at kicking out time. Still better than some of my metaphors, though. 

In the case of this post, however, it seems entirely appropriate. In fact not only had it been on my list for a while, it was also one of the only places the Ewing had expressed any interest in going to; mostly after seeing the estimable Max Halley himself appearing on Sunday Brunch, making a fish finger sandwich stuffed with Scampi Fries.

I'm hardly sure I need even say this but, being a Saturday afternoon (and certainly after our cocktail crawl the night before) we were a little worse for wear, although a brisk walk up the Stroud Green Road had helped somewhat. The Ewing plumped for a hair of the dog, although she did show some restraint by picking a Kernel Table Beer at an eminently sensible 3.1 per cent.

I ordered a cuppa - yours for just a quid - and was rewarded with this practically perfect example, hot and strong and in a very appropriate mug. I also ordered a Arnold Palmer, the magnificently named 50/50mix of ice tea and cloudy lemonade that was said to be a favourite of the flamboyant golfer. It's one of my favourites, too, and unexpectedly exciting to see it on a menu this side of the pond.

Tom's Amazing Wings - soy and vinegar chicken wings fried in Smash, guindilla yogurt, lime pickled onions and spring onions - lived up to their name. The potato flake coating was revelatory, as was the addition of pickled chillies with the yogurt. Double onions provided tang and crunch.

Brown paper packages, tied up with string, these are a few of my favourite things. Well, a slightly less exciting elastic band, if I'm being pedantic, but still an exciting parcel of squishy carbohydrates and promise.

I chose the Et tu, Brute? Murdering the Caesar', their riff on the classic salad featuring confit guinea fowl, pickled grape and tarragon salsa, baby gem, parsley, garlic croutons and anchovy mayo. 

Let's just take a moment to look at it, a hulking beast comprising of warm, pillowy foccacia, stuffed to the gunwales with all sorts of exciting things that spill out as you unwrap the waxed paper bundle.

This was everything I love between two pillowy slices of excellent bread. Soft sticky strands of guinea fowl, sweet and sour salsa and salty anchovy, all offset with the crunch of bitter leaves. I would go as far to say it rivalled my Mum's Boxing Day turkey sarnie; the highest praise indeed. 

If there was one, minor, quibble was that the tiny croutons made the whole thing pretty rich, a situation that probably wasn't helped by my delicate constitution. I could also have done with a metric tonne more of the glorious mayo, but I'm just greedy.

The Ewing chose their signature sarnie, the Ham, Egg 'n' Chips filled with slow-cooked shredded ham hocks, piccalilli, a fried egg, shoestring fries and malt vinegar mayo. If the anchovy mayo was great, this could have been even better, mixing two of my all-time favourite condiments that gave the creamy spread an extra tangy punch.

As you can see, the Ewing was utterly in her element, giddy on carbs and the fact she had finally made the pilgrimage to try what is, possibly, London's most famous (certainly one of the best) sandwich.  I was glad that we could tick another one off the list, and squeeze in another cliche to boot. 

Friday, 29 March 2019

Out out

There are few things better than an unexpected Friday afternoon off, and this particular Friday afternoon I was particularly excited to be going out out for once and hitting the town for a cocktail crawl; kicking off with solo drinks at Dandelyan. 

Located on the ground floor of the Sea Containers hotel on the Southbank, this is possibly my favourite stretch of my favourite city. Even the lowering clouds merged perfectly with the steely waters of the Thames and the marvellous geometry of the buildings; as viewed here from Blackfriars Bridge.

Launched by London’s very own bartender extraordinaire Ryan Chetiyawardana, AKA Mr Lyan, it has recently been awarded the accolade of the best cocktail bar in the whole wide world (clearly they have never had a jug of Woo Woos at Yates’ Wine Lodge).

I was particularly keen to come, even if it was only a flying solo visit, as it was the penultimate day it would operate in this incarnation, before being closed for good, remodelled and reopened as Lyaness. As it was their final week, several old faces had dropped in and I could over hear the staff giving them the low down on the new iteration from my perch at the bar, from what I could pick up, it's 

From their final cocktail menu, The Modern Life of Plants, I kicked off with a Re-Supply Sour, which include Koji liquor, Compass Box whisky, raspberry and nutrient-enriched cardboard. I had to Google koji; apparently it's a fungus, Aspergillus oryzae, that's used to make fermented things such as sake, miso and soy sauce. 

While I'm still not much clearer of what was actually in it, I can tell you that it was delicious. I love the clean, bright flavours of a sour and this made the perfect pre-prandial; fresh and zingy and, as you can see, pretty as a picture.

Obviously I have decided the 'no sugar rule' doesn't extend to alcohol, and I took full advantage of that to order the Koji Hardshake, a stalwart that has stayed on the ever-changing menu since 2014. Another drink featuring koji - yes, the clue is in the name - along with blended scotch, lemon juice, double cream and liquorice bitters. The piece de resistance is a blow-torched marshmallow, spritzed with a truffle spray, that is balanced on the rim.

Perfectly balanced between creamy, spicy and boozy, this was rich and funky but without being cloying. I'm not sure if this will make a comeback in the new gaff, but, if it does, jump on it. Not literally; the gooey marshmallow will get everywhere.

After wedging, literally, myself into a tube carriage at St Paul's - God bless London during Friday night rush hour - I made it to Bethnal Green. Despite my trousers clearly being far too long for East London, I snuck in anyway and hit Mother Kelly's Paradise Row for a swift half while awaiting the Ewing's arrival.

Always a great place for a beer, or several, this visit coincided with the launch of the To Øl Mr. series, their tribute to Quentin Tarantino's cult 90s classic Reservoir Dogs. I tried a half of the Mr Orange; a double dry hopped IPA with khaki fruit (me neither), orange peel and re-fermented with To Øl instant crush brett (still no idea) at 5 per cent. It was good, but maybe not the ten-odd quid - I managed to cut the prices off when I took the photo, but it certainly wasn't cheap - it cost.

The Ewing started her night on the booze with the 9 per cent Mr Brown; an 'imperial salty caramel cookie dough double coffee fudge chocolate milk hazelnut butter vanilla cocoa crumble brown ale'.  Which was an unorthodox aperitif, but tasted quite as marvellous as it sounds.

Sensing it was probably wise to stop for ballast at some point (and you won't like the Ewing when she's hangry), we moved next door, literally, for dinner at Sager and Wilde. A wine bar-cum-restaurant they are also known for their incredible lunch and early evening menu, featuring a plate of pasta and a glass of wine or a negroni for a tenner.

We both chose the cocktail option. Alongside our drinks we enjoyed a generous bowl of excellent nocellara olives, the Ewing's absolute fave, and also some excellent lamb and caper arancini. Crisp-crumbed balls of gooey risotto studded with shredded meat and the poky pickled buds. A labour of love consumed in a couple of delicious mouthfuls.

The Ewing chose the Reginette, or little queens, made with beetroot in the pasta dough, turning it a glorious pink colour.  It was served simply with smoked ricotta and black garlic and topped with a drift of crispy breadcrumbs. While a touch of the stodgy side (which I am highly down with), I enjoyed the fiery note from a liberal dose of chilli.

My Strozapretti, gloriously translating as priest stranglers, was bathed in a rich pork ragu that had chunks of tender meat and tomatoes in a deep, buttery sauce that had been properly covered in a drift of fresh parmesan. The whole lot, including tip, was still cheap enough to be able to pay by contactless. Amazing value, great staff and excellent food.

Not quite at stumbling stage we made it down the Bethnal Green Road to the final call on our cocktail crawl. Another London venue that features in the World's 50 bars, Coupette was awarded the best new opening in 2017, and debuted at an impressive 18th on the full list last year. 

With a menu that focuses on calvados as well as cocktails the Ewing started with the 'apples'. Made simply from french apple brandy and fresh pressed apple juice, the varieties used change monthly giving it a subtly ever-changing flavour profile through the seasons. When I was chatting to the bar tender at Dandelyan earlier that the afternoon, this was the drink he recommended saying it was his favourite cocktail to drink anywhere at the moment. Quite a bold claim, and one that was backed up with it's delicious simplicity.

The cocktail they are best known for is the champagne colada, which, as it sounds blends a pina colada with a healthy glug of Moet et Chandon. Two of my very favourite things: as the Barefoot Contessa might say, 'how bad can that be?'

The answer is not bad at all, with the fizz lifting the richness of the coconut milk. Probably my drink of the day, although getting the coconut flakes through the straw did take a monumental amount of effort as I got towards the end. Who said this drinking lark was easy.

As a nightcap I took the bartenders recommendation of a tropical old fashioned, made from a Woodford Reserve and tropical cordial of pineapple, lime and mango and tropical bitters. Simple, strong and surprisingly refreshing for a digestif.

The Ewing tried the Board Room with cognac, Dubonnet cherry, coffee and smoke. This was a touch too much bonfire for me, but she still loves the odd menthol Vogue, so it slipped down pretty easily.

While we were gearing up for that to be the last round, the level of inebriation the Ewing had reached by that point lead to the  realisation that she was still a couple of drinks behind me. And so she promptly ordered a champagne colada for herself.

Not wanting to be left out (although this didn't help with any imbalance in imbibing), I ordered the champagne martini, which, surprise surprise, saw a classic martini with Grey Goose Noilly Prat being topped up with Moet and champagne liqueur and garnished with a frozen grape. This was another excellent combination, the effervescence smoothing out the rough edges of the vodka perfectly. 

Definitely at stumbling stage, our final stop on the trail was a visit to the estimable Beigel Bake on Brick Lane. While I'm a big fan of their smoked salmon and cream cheese offering (and their cheesecake, if I could actually eat it at the moment), it's hard to see past the perfect salt beef. 

Huge slabs of cured brisket, cut into hunks and stuffed into the perfectly squidgy/chewy bagels, along with pickles and a good slathering of proper english mustard. If you don't end up here after a night on the tiles, have you even been out drinking in East London? Sober me also thanked drunk me for bringing an extra cream cheese bagel back to the hotel for the morning after. Drunk me can still pull it out the bag when it's needed.

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.