Thursday, 30 November 2017

The New Kid - Smoking Goat, Shoreditch

There is very little as pleasurable in life as a long and boozy lunch with an old friend on a wintery Saturday afternoon. The kind of lunch that starts in the pale winter light and meanders its way through a menu of cocktails and conversation until its dark as pitch outside and you realise just how pissed you are as you try to avoid setting fire to your sleeve on the newly lit candle that’s appeared on the table as you struggle to put your coat on.

It all started off rather sedately, at Smoking Goat in Shoreditch – the new kid from the Soho stable, which also includes the much lauded Kiln – with a couple of frosty beers (I drank the excellent One Mile End Juicy 4pm) and a couple of grilled Tamworth skewers; the smoky meat interspersed with nuggets of fat and lacquered in a sweet and sticky glaze. 

The menu is a concise mix, familiar to anyone who has been to the original, that focuses on Thai drinking snacks with a few larger sharing dishes and sides. It’s also very keenly priced, meaning we could try far more of it, which is handy because I wanted to try it all. Normally that’s just because of sheer greed, but here everything sounds fantastic, from the poached Menai oyster with chilli to the drunken brisket noodles, neither of which we had the capacity to shoehorn in.

One thing I was very keen not to miss out on – partly as it’s one of my favourite Thai dishes, and partly because it comes with a chilli heat warning and I’m a masochist when it comes to preserving my taste buds - was the duck laarb. Finely chopped pieces of duck offal cooked with ground rice and indecent amounts of chilli, dried red and fresh green, seasoned with lime juice and fresh herbs. The ultimate drinking snack. Just the ultimate snack full stop.

Like most good spicy things, the burn grows from a pleasant tickle into a flicker that moves across your tongue and makes the sweat prick your brow. While poky, the heat is far from incendiary, meaning you can pick out the delicateness of each individual flavour. Unless your stealth and you eat the whole red chilli. Then the whole green one too.

From the larger plates section the d’tom yum came in a large pot - perfect for sharing -swimming with velvet crab and plump wild mussels and the addition of assorted aromatics in the form of lime, chillies, lemongrass  and ginger. Tom yum is one of my favourite soups and here the broth was perfect – clean and well-balanced between sweet, salt, and sour with a dash of heat creeping in.

The goat itself, served slow braised in a massoman curry sauce, was good, if a little lacking in sparkle after all the fireworks. By no means a bad dish - the huge hunk of tender shoulder slipped from its bone, possessing just the right ratio of meat to fat – the mild flavours were, unsparingly, somewhat muted after the slap round the chops from what had come before. I also didn’t get any spuds, which would have been entirely superfluous at that point, but I was kind of looking forward to a couple of yielding tubers to crush into the peanutty sauce.

To make up for any lost carbs – several beers were also helping with that - we also ordered the lardo fried rice (although the fluffy plates of jasmine rice being served at the table next to us smelt incredibly good), studded with chunks of crispy fatty pork, spring onion and crispy omelette and served with a dish of piquant chilli vinegar and half a lime to cut a swathe through the richness.

Desserts are a work in progress - maybe not a bad thing judging by some of the Thai sweets I’ve tried, although I do love coconut and mango sticky rice - but they do offer the perfect way for you to finish a meal in the shape of the Tray of Joy. The Tray of Joy, as the moniker suggests, being a ramshackle assortment of strange liquors – the kind that taste great in a Greek tavern after spending all day in the sun or in an Hungarian bar after several beers  – served in what appears very much like glasses straight from my Nan’s cabinet.

One important piece of research, which I’ve concluded so you don’t have to, is that the number of trays of joy consumed and feelings of joy appear inversely proportional. Although that could be something to do with the subsequent rounds of cocktails we ordered and Spurs losing 2-0 to their North London rivals in the lunchtime kick-off. Still, a well-kept pint of Hotspur at the nearby King’s Stores did a little to ameliorate the gloom.

Sunday, 26 November 2017

Super Saturday

Everyone who supports a team has their ‘golden’ era. For me, I would like to say it was the mighty Tottenham of the late 80s / early 90s, with players like Gary Mabbutt and Gary Lineker. Sadly, for me, I was a whisker too late and I ended up with Jason Dozzell and Jason Cundy. That said I was lucky enough that my first real Spurs memory was the 1991 FA cup semi-final, a 3-1 victory against our North London rivals which spawned the famous chant “we’re going to Wembley cos we beat the Arsenal”, something that I, endearingly naively, thought was a common garden occurrence. 

Of course, it wasn't; that is until last season, when White Hart Lane was finally put to the wrecking ball and Spurs were temporarily afforded the chance to call the hallowed Wembley turf  ‘home’ for the 2017/18 Premier League season.

Long story short, it’s how the Ewing and I came to be heading to Wembley on a Saturday afternoon to see what would, hopefully, be their first home league win of the season (and hoping that it wouldn’t be a repeat of our last visit, where we conceived to get knocked out of the Europa league and Alli got sent off while I was in the loo).

As with the time before (with a visit to, what now appears sadly defunct, Karhe Queen), we decided our pre-match prep would be in the form of a curry at the Sri Lankan/South Indian stalwart Palm Beach. Perhaps not the greatest choice before squeezing in close proximity with thousands of other people, but with the range of good, cheap Indian food available on the High Road, even I could happily forego a dirty pre-match burger from the van.

The menu is big - a meandering tome that spans across the two countries, taking in soups, dosa, noodles, tandoori, South Indian specialities, devilled dishes and biryani. Ever-prepared, I had already studied it extensively online, but if you're not as into pre-planning I'd recommend heading straight for the Palm Beach specials, where you can find Indo-chinese food and Sri Lankan dishes such as lamb intestines, anchovies, rabbit curry and the, Dutch-influenced, lamprais.

Football + Curry = lager and large bottles of icy cold Lion did a fine job of quenching thirsts and quelling fires. They also have the mighty Lion stout, an export style stout that young men  in plaid shirts would be raving over if it was being served in plastic half pint glasses in a corregated shed in Shacklewell.

If anything could get me to become veggie it’s Indian food - finding myself powerless when confronted by a creamy tarka daal or an earthy saag bhaji. I particularly enjoy their treatment of the aubergine, a tricky veg to nail properly. Here it's served ‘Jaffna-style’, cooked to tender collapse, languishing in a rich pool of smoky, spiced oil.

Of course, I couldn’t really commit to just veg as it would mean missing out on delights like the vast portion of tender squid that had been dry-fried in a dark spice paste rich with shrimp and tamarind and was impossibly delicious; all crispy and soft and sweet and fiery. A classic Sri Lankan dish that’s unprepossessing looks belie it’s delicious charms.

Another dish that would have had a pop-up in a Brixton boxpark by now, had it been a more ‘Grammable proposition, is the kothu roti. A dish so named because of the sound the knives make as they chop the ingredients on a hot plate, it’s a dish borne of ingenuity with roadside vendors using leftover bread from breakfast (or string hoppers or puttu), chopped up and fried with a mixture of meat vegetables and eggs. 

While not being classically good looking, it’s a dish with depth and charm; certainly worthy of a second date. Here the venison version was outstanding and utterly moreish - compelling me to keep eating to the point I pretty much had to roll myself out and back down the High Road.

Additionally, deliciously, yet entirely unnecessary was a fragrant Malabar prawn curry from the Keralan coast. A dish full of plump crustaceans in a rich and fragrant coconut gravy, spiced with curry leaves and red chilli, that was soaked up perfectly by with a bowl of old school fluffy pilau rice, flecked through with grains of luminous orange.

I've yet to make acquaintance with an Indian/Sri Lankan pudding I've really enjoyed, despite my greed-driven perseverance. Not wanting to admit defeat, and as the Ewing was ordering pistachio kulfi (no pic, very nice) and a cup of spiced masala chai, I decided to try the watalappan, or baked coconut custard.

Served on a banana leaf, this was a wobbly slice of cashew-topped joy. that tasted like the old fashioned baked bread pudding my next door neighbour made when i was growing up, only the familiar vanilla and brown sugar had been replaced by pandan and jaggery. An exceptionally good pud, by any standards.

Grinding out a 1-0 victory against the Cherries was hardly the stuff of my schoolgirl Wembley fantasies, but as someone who still remembers the joyful feeling of reaching the end of the season and finishing higher than mid-table and with a positive goal difference, I’ll happily take it.

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

Brixham Rocks

I’m currently decorating my living room, which is probably marginally more exciting for you than for me, and is also proving pretty exhausting. As a consequence I’ve seen my weekly pizza count increase and my weekly blogging time decrease in inverse proportion over the last few weeks - not aided by my laptop being commandeered to watch Spurs not being spursy.

But, with a gap appearing between the painting of the woodwork and the new carpet being laid  - which also coincided with a break in the domestic footy for the England friendlies – I’m seizing my chance to write about one of my favourite meals of the year so far, Sunday lunch at Rockfish in Brixham Harbour.

Is it even a Sunday on holiday if you don’t start proceedings with a bloody mary? Clearly Rockfish shared my sentiments, offering both a classic and chilli version - the hot version is really pretty poky - on their succinct cocktail menu, but offering them at half price between 12 -2pm Well, it would have been rude not to.
The main thrust of the Rockfish menu is freshly caught day boat fish - caught in one of the largest fishing fleets in in the UK based in the harbour that can be glimpsed from the window – meaning a good proportion of their offering is dictated by time and tide. To help facilitate tricky decision-making, they have helpfully depicted the catch most commonly available on the place mat. 

Normally anything that involves me having to engage with another human for any longer than strictly necessary is anathema, but the waitress knowledgeably took us through not just what had been landed that morning, but what cut would be served and how best to have it prepared by the kitchen.

Choices on our visit included Mussels – from nearby Elberry Cove - a haunt of Agatha Christie – delicate fillets of brill, and an old favourite, wing of skate on the bone. I chose the hake, a fat tranche of fish that was offered battered or, as I chose, grilled with lashings of garlicky butter. Why hake isn’t more popular on our shores remains a mystery - although this probably pleases the Spanish, who seem to end up with most of our catch – as it’s a great fish which, when cooked as well as this, has a crisp skin and a firm sweet flesh that stands up well to robust flavours.

While I might have been willing to forego my batter, I couldn’t give up my fried potatoes, and the accompanying chips – decent old school chippy-style - are served in limitless qualities, along with their house tartare sauce. The Ewing, who never misses a trick to spend some extra money, also noticed they had a seaweed version, which looked rather ominous, but had an pleasing seaside note. (YOLO babe, YOLO - TE)

The Ewing had the mackerel, served whole, grilled until the skin blistered and anointed with the same garlic. Being all healthy like, she chose the side house salad, although a sizeable portion of greenery -  a mix of baby spinach, cos and romaine lettuce and cucumber with cherry tomatoes & red onion - dressed with a classic vinaigrette, meant the prefix wasn’t really necessary. (oh look there's me, looking suitably nautical - TE)

While the fish and chips were superlative, the side orders were beyond reproach, featuring what has quickly become my new favourite flavour combination – pickled onion rings topped with a mix of homemade curry sauce and mushy peas. 

Whoever decided to combine two stone cold chippy classics deserves a New Year’s gong at the very least. And probably one of those blue plaques, too. The pickled onion rings - not quite ‘pickly’ enough for my tastes but still exceptionally good – made the perfect vehicle to transport the deliciously lurid mixture mouthwards.

After devouring pretty much the whole basket of fried alliums single-handedly, I was wavering at the thought of pud, so my wife thoughtfully chose for me, as well as her own pick, of course. She’s nice like that. Not that you found me complaining when they arrived. After all, it would be pretty churlish to take issue with a wobbly slice of chocolate nemesis – based, presumably, on the legendary River CafĂ©’s signature dessert – and their home made mr whippy, drenched with a good glug of sticky PX sherry. I particularly enjoyed the latter, alongside an espresso– who wants to eat ice cream any other way.

Possibly the best bit of the whole experience – closely fought completion, vying with the company and the view – was the bill at the end. Coming in at a shade under sixty notes it was great value for two courses of surprisingly deft cooking plus cocktails and cider. Plus limitless sparkling and still water and complimentary sauces. 

In fact, we were so impressed with our lunch that, despite my exhaustive list of places to eat for the rest of our trip, we managed to squeeze in another sneaky visit the following Friday, to sample some fish and chips from their takeaway below.

Keeping it simple  - we also managed to squeeze in another visit to another chippy later that evening - more hake plus more (DIY) curry sauce and mushy peas - fresh Bay Whiting came as two curly fillets, sitting on a scoop of chips. A firm textured fish, perfect for frying, it makes a fine, plus ethical, cod substitute, especially if the batter is as crisp and golden as here.

We also tried the much maligned sprat – a middle-sized member of the herring family - which were fried whole in a very light coating of flour and served with more tartare to dip. Like whitebait on steroids (and, again, more sustainable, thanks to their bigger size). A must try, if you can handle staring down your dinner.

While there’s not anything in the same league back in my land-locked neck of the woods, Rockfish have recently collaborated with Burts Crisps, another well-loved Devonian company, to produce a fish and chip flavoured potato product. Not quite the same when snaffled at home, and not staring out at the harbour, but they certainly make watching paint dry a little more enjoyable.

Tuesday, 31 October 2017

#cheeseandciderchallenge pt.2

On Tuesday the #cheeseandcidercchallenge trundled gaily onwards with the sat nav leading us up an extremely narrow lane, culminating in a dead end, from which we could see - all while expertly executing a 500 point turn - a tantalising glimpse of the sign for Sandford Orchards through the trees.

Even if we hadn't spied the logo, the rich autumnal smell of fermented apples hanging in the autumnal air would have been a dead giveaway that we were nearly in the right place.

Undeterred, we found a circuitous new route that made me very happy to find that we could enjoy a cold pint in their warehouse-cum-bar at the end of it. As you can see,  my darling wife felt the same.

She did cheer up somewhat when she found they had cider-inspired cocktail recipes chalked up on the walls and managed to get core ingredient - Fanny's Bramble, a blackcurrant-infused cider - for this year's famed Xmas cocktail to inflict  create for my family in Leeds. The other ingredients being fizz and vodka. I can feel the hangover now....

If there was simmering discord before we arrived at our next stop -  a short drive down the road to Quickes Dairy and farm shop - locking both sets of keys, one set still tantalisingly visible on the parcel shelf, in the car was the cherry on the cheesecake.

As it so happened, on this occasion, our luck was firmly in as Cakadoodledo, based in nearby Exeter, have opened up a cafe next door. Meaning that we could enjoy this wonderful ploughman's, with Quicke's cheddar, and a slice of chocolate and blackcurrant cake all while watching out the window as a friendly repairman was breaking in to our car outside.

And, as  if it couldn't get any better, the lovely ladies in the cafe gave us a slice of their incredible cheesecake topped brownie as they were celebrating their first birthday at their Quickes site.

Wednesday bought about a visit to the Totnes branch of the much lauded Country Cheeses, which was pretty much everything I hoped it would be. A huge selection of, mostly, very local cheese – there’s a map behind the counter to show you were they are produced – complemented by a smaller selection of chutney, jam, crackers and eggs, all served up by some enthusiastic fromage fanciers.

Of course, we quickly smashed our pre-agreed one cheese each limit; emerging with a Sloe Tavy - a heart-shaped cheese made specially for County Cheeses that is washed in Plymouth Sloe Gin; Devon Smoake - a naturally smoked cheese from Curworthy; Vintage Norworthy - a crumbly aged goats cheese; and Keltic promise – a Cornish (gasp) washed rind cheese for the Ewing that looked benign but made our fridge smell like my PE bag when I was in the hockey team at school.

After a successful morning our luck held with a visit to Newton Abbot to visit Ye Olde Cider Bar, one of Britain’s last remaining cider pubs. There's no beers on offer but you can order wine, if you don't mind it being made of elderberries, strawberries or rhubarb.

Clearly we were only here for one thing, although, with such a massive selection of cider (ask for the retro leather bound menu if you want tasting notes) it was hard to know where to start. After a couple of tasters I was tempted by a pint of Suicide, but as it was lunchtime on a Tuesday I thought it prudent to stick to the house cider, Sam's, pressed at Western Barn in Winkleigh.

I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anything better in the bar snack leagues, especially their own 'ploughman’s' – consisting of a packet of crisps, a few pickled onions and  chunk of cheddar. The barman, rather sweetly, even came over to check I knew exactly what I’d ordered, and wasn’t expecting something fancier, as well as giving me a chilli warning before I tucked into the onions.

Thursday was an auspicious day, as it commemorated the (nth) anniversary of my birth. To celebrate the Ewing presented me with a clothbound truckle of Quicke's Devonshire Red – their take on a Red Leicester - complete with celebratory candle, and a bottle of Sandfords ice cider, made by freezing the fermented juice to make an even sweeter, stronger drink.

While this gift would have made a magnificent breakfast, fulfilling all aspects of the challenge admirably, we were in a predictable rush - to get to Plymouth for a tour of the Gin distillery – so there was no time to enjoy my new-gotten gains. 

Hence my cheese-based element for the day ended up being a breakfast of Quavers by the quayside, washed down with a double macchiato from Kaffehuis. An ever-so-slight elongation of the original rules, but it was my birthday; I’ll eat maize-based cheesy snacks and count them if I want to.

After a boozy afternoon spent enjoying several drinks including a sloe motion (Plymouth sloe gin topped with fizz), white rioja and a glass of pudding wine, I wasn’t really into the cider vibe after I stumbled back, starting on a bottle of port instead…. 

The Ewing - after heroically staying sober enough to safely drive me home - decided that shoving The Wilkin's cider in the freezer to make her own ice cider slushy and then drinking it out of a wine glass while watching the football would make her appear less uncouth. It may not have had quite have the desired effect, but she did look cute. I also had a few swigs to fulfil my remit for the day (birthday rules) and Harry Kane scored a last minute winner, so all in all, it was a satisfactory conclusion to proceedings.

While things had ended on a high note the day before, the following morning, despite the cloudless blue skies, painted a darker picture. It was a scene of sore heads and recriminations, where the only sensible answer was a huge plate of stinky, oozy cheese, washed down with the dregs of the port. By this point, as glorious as it all sounds, my cheese levels had reached the point of waking nightmares; hallucinating like I was in a Tom and Jerry cartoon, and if only I lay my head down in the trap, the agony would soon be over.

After rousing myself enough to get out to Greenway (the doyenne of crime, Agatha Christie’s, holiday home)  and spending a happy, if exhausting day under the sun, sweating fermented milk and fortified grape juice, I decided the best way to round things off was a Friday night drink at the pub. After six and a half long, gruelling days of excessive dairy consumption and afternoon-inebriation, I just needed one last drink of cider to successfully complete the challenge. Readers, I had a beer.