Sunday, 18 August 2019

Holiday at home

We're all going on a summer N17. Who wants two weeks in Benidorm, when you can have an afternoon at the new Tottenham Hotspur stadium, watching them lose on penalties to Inter Milan in the International Champions Cup (what would have once been called a pre-season friendly).

Luckily, not my wife, who was far more excited about a visit to Chick King, followed by the footy, a few beers and a kebab on the Seven Sisters road and night in the glamorous Finsbury Park Travelodge. 

I decided to extend the enjoyment by planning a day in town as tourists. Starting with a walk around the corner (a good thing as, bearing in mind this was London in August, it was chucking it down when we woke up) to the Happening Bagel Bakery. Notice I was wearing my Spurs colours in enemy lines, we are firmly in A*senal territory here (Cuckoos in the nest in my opinion, back to Woolwich with ya! - TE), and there are multiple flags and banners in the bakers.

I would happily put up with their allegiance to the Woolwich for their poppy seed bagels, a plethora of poppy seeds firmly adhering to both sides, stuffed with smoked salmon and a generous schmear of soft cheese.

We also shared a huge hunk of 'baked cheese', a wobbly, claggy (in the right way), creamy cheesecake, which reminded me of my Nan's recipe from the Hellmann's Mayonnaise cookbook. The very highest praise. It took a bit longer, but I also enjoyed a hulking wedge of sticky coffee cake, adorned with slivered nuts, that we bought home and then promptly forgot about until later in the week.

The next stop of the day (the sun had kindly decided to make an appearance by this point) was the London outpost of Mikeller, in Shoreditch. I particularly wanted to bring the Ewing here as the bar was opened in conjunction with Rick Astley, one of her childhood favourites. 

She doesn't sing often (she doesn't get a chance with me around) but she does give a cracking rendition of Never Gonna Give You Up, especially after a few beers. So this seemed like the perfect place to get her in the mood.

Our first beers were Rick's Berliner, a berliner weisse with passion fruit, and an organic cherry sour. I enjoyed the Berliner, finding it an easy-going summer sipper, but the Ewing found the promised cherry and expected lip-puckering punch in her choice slightly underwhelming, especially at £5.80 for a half. 

These were followed quickly by half of Hazesan Allihops, a hazy NEIPA, and a glass of hop-infused Riesling, which went particularly well with their honey roasted cashews. Even better were the Marmite hazelnuts that accompanied my half of their classic Beer Geek Breakfast stout. A bar par excellence.

While we were sat there enjoying our drinks, the Ewing was trying to follow England's day five collapse in the first Ashes test. So she was pretty happy I was camouflaged (I was wearing my best summer shirt, obviously) behind the cheese plants. Unfortunately she could still hear me talking....(but if you weren't talking, you wouldn't be there and life would be so boring, so keep talking x - TE)

With England all out before tea, we decided to head across town for an early dinner. Some of my best holidays (certainly some of the hottest and most drunkenly) have been in Italy; not to mention that pizza is still, on balance, my favourite food. So, to bring back some of those summer vibes I chose 50 Kalo Di Ciro Salvo as our next stop.

Owner Ciro Salvo is a third generation piazzola of a family-run pizzeria near Naples. The first branch of 50 Kalo opened in Naples in 2014, and this is their first UK outpost; located on a rather uninspiring stretch at the top of Northumberland Avenue. 

Inside is all faux Italian marble columns and high ceilings, with the back of the restaurant dominated by a huge red-tiled, wood-burning pizza oven. A vibe, along with a cold bottle of their house lager, that obviously made the Ewing feel peckish. To  be fair, most vibes make the Ewing feel peckish.

We started by sharing a frittatina di buccatini. Described, rather oddly, on the menu as an 'eggless pasta omelette', this was essentially a deep fried macaroni and cheese ball with smoked provalone and chunks of ham. However it was described, it was absolutely delicious. Cheesy, crispy, salty, and the perfect aperitivo while waiting for the main event.

Our first choice was the carciofi e capocollo, a pizza bianca with artichokes and pork neck. This looked the part when it arrived at the table. A puffy crust with a leopard-spotted cornicione, and generously topped.

The Ewing's main criticism of the Neapolitan pizza is it's tendency into a central soupiness, but this avoided any soggy bits. If I had a criticism, it would be that I found it a bit heavy going towards the end; the richness of the toppings calling for a foil of chilli heat or a touch of acidic tomato.

We also ordered a red pizza - this time a classic margarita, despite the Ewing's meek protestations that we should add anchovies or olives or anything other than just cheese and tomato. Maybe it is a sign of my old age, but I've really started to appreciate the simplicity of a margarita over the last few years (although I'm still partial to a good good slug of chilli oil).

This version was even better than the artichoke and pork neck; the blistered spots on the base bringing a bitterness than set off the sweet tomato and milky mozzarella. Perfect simplicity and a very good pizza.

All holidays have to include an ice cream and our last stop was a scenic walk across Trafalgar Square, to Grom, another Italian export, this time from Turin in the north. Committed to making gelati and sorbetti free from artificial additives, stabilisers, or thickeners, they use fruit from their own farms and milk and cream for all their gelati sold across 40 locations worldwide still comes from Piemontese dairies. But will it match up to a Mr Whippy?

Flavours are very much old school with classics such as as the famous Torino gianduja (chocolate and hazelnut), Italian nougat, Sicilian pistachio and Crema come una volta, translated as 'the way it used to be', a simple cream base with a hint of lemon.

I chose the signature Crema di Grom, a plain cream base mixed with Ecuadorian chocolate chips and Grom's own polenta cookies and a scoop of Piedmont hazelnut, while the Ewing plumped for the coffee and the salted caramel.

Who said beige food was boring? While the crema di Grom was a little too sweet, and the biscuity chunks were a little less chunky than I'd have liked, the rest were superb. A special shout out must go to the incredible coffee that was both intense and creamy and the hazelnut, made without any cream to let the flavour of the nuts shine through.

And the great thing about having a holiday in your home town? You don't have to pack up your suitcase and go home.

Wednesday, 7 August 2019

The best fried chicken in the world

It seems remiss not to have dragged Stealth, in some sort of parlous state, down a back alley in E&C in a while, so I am happy to be able to make amends. And I’m even happier it was for the auspicious occasion to eat what London Eater has recently labelled ‘the best fried chicken in London’, and my wife, even more hyperbolically, labelled ‘the best fried chicken in the world’ (and that was before even trying it).

Thanks to the heatwave being in full swing and a slightly over-exuberant night watching the Gossip at Somerset House the night before, I was thankful that La Barra, our destination for aforementioned fried chicken, was only 4 minutes (according to Google Maps) from the flat. Despite this, Stealth still manged to remain unaware of its existence (I’ll give her this one, as it’s hidden down by the railways arches and, from the unassuming frontage, easy to walk past).

Alongside the chicken - listed as being Dominican and available in three sizes - there is a selection of  South American favourites including Bandeja Paisa (meat, rice and beans topped with a fried egg); Chorrillana (the Peruvian version of loaded fries); and Ajiaco (a soup with chicken and no less than three types of potatoes). 

Be warned, the portions are big. Our waiter even warned us we had over-ordered and so we reluctantly reduced the seven piece chicken platter to five pieces. Of course, even with our half-hearted amendment to reduce the amount of food, he was absolutely correct. But it did mean the Ewing and I had dinner sorted for the next night, too.

We started with three empanandas. little parcels of corn dough stuffed, on this occasion, with beef and potatoes and deep fried. These were a huge success with all of us and were improved even further by the hommade ají picante Colombiano, a verdant chilli sauce with onions, lime, garlic, coriander and tomato that had Stealth proclaiming she was going to come back for that alone.

As well as a cold beer (nothing 'local' so we drank bottles of Bud) they have a large menu of fruit juices. Sadly the maracuyá (passion fruit) and tomate de árbol (tomatillo) were off, but the Ewing and I shared a jug of mango juice, while Stealth took down a giant mug of homemade lemonade.

First up was another recommended dish - the Chinese rice Colombian style. A huge heap of rice stir fried with soy sauce and mined through with chunks of chicken and pork, prawns, peas and bean sprouts. If that wasn't enough, it was also served with a huge pork schnitzel, salad and chips. Suddenly, I had a feeling the waiter was probably going to be right....

And so to the piece de resistance, described in the aforementioned Eater article as ‘five pieces of fried thigh, leg, and wings with a jacket of batter that has twisted and spluttered into dark brown curlicues in its death throes upon contact with hot oil’. Memorable if not, perhaps for some, the most appetising description. 

As already might be expected, there are plenty of extra items alongside. Carbs are provided in the form of tostones – deep fried discs of green plantain –and there is also an advertised heap of chicharron, crispy chunks of salty pork belly; and bofes, dark strips of (cow’s, I think) lung that have been boiled and fried. Oh, and a regular old side salad.

Of the variety of mixed meats heaped up on the plate the chicken is, as promised, excellent. Well-seasoned and hot and crisp. Perhaps not unsurprisingly, it probably wouldn’t be the first choice 'Boneless Bucket’ brigade. For all those who appreciate the wrestle with a little bone and gristle to get to the Good Stuff, it’s very fine chicken indeed.

The chicarron are also excellent, who wouldn’t like some bonus pork chunks with their dinner? The bofes are a little more of an acquired taste, although I’m not sure if it’s psychosomatic, as they are broadly similar in flavour to the chicarron – salty and smoky and savoury– just with a slightly different texture. Worth trying, especially with a cold beer or two alongside, which also perfectly accompanies the nutty slices of tostones. Dip them in the chilli sauce for extra joyfulness.

The sleeper hit was the last dish out of the kitchen, a shrimp ceviche that were served with a spicy, onion and tomato dressing, topped with some avocado and served with large saltine crackers (square cream crackers) an iceberg lettuce for scooping.

Unfortunately this ended up being placed on the table far nearer to my wife than me, and she certainly didn’t miss the chance to get stuck in. From the mouthfuls I did manage to snaffle, I’d describe it as like the prawn cocktail my mum makes every Christmas, with a little extra chilli and lime juice added. For those who haven’t had the pleasure of my Mum’s prawn cocktail, this is the very highest of praises.

Is it the best chicken in the world? Well, that's a bold claim and I'm not sure even the Ewing has eaten enough to verify it yet. (Whhhhhaaaaaaaattttt???? - TE). Is it the best chicken in London? Well, I still have a soft spot for Chick King, the pride of North London. The best chicken in E&C? Doubtless, especially when you consider that, four minutes after settling up, you can be settling back and enjoying this post-prandial view from Stealth's balcony.

Friday, 19 July 2019

Let's chase the dragon

There’s nowhere in my town that does good Chinese food. There used to be an all you can eat buffet that did surprisingly passable crispy duck and yes, there’s a Wagamama-esque place that does pretty decent kung pau king prawns (although they’ve taken the wonton noodle soup off the menu). 

And of course there’s a real Wagamamas with the great veggie katsu that surpasses the chicken one. But they are not the kind of neon lit places, on a corner, that you stumble into after a night on the beer for a foil tray of mixed meat chow mein and a big bag of prawn crackers, to use in lieu of cutlery.

I’m not even talking about ‘good good’ Chinese food, ‘bad good’ would be just fine. Ribs the colour of my scalp after half an hour on the beach without a hat on; mounds of crispy seaweed sprinkled with the mysterious powder that’s more addictive than opiates; Yeung Chow fried rice that tastes even better when slightly congealed and eaten the next day for breakfast.

Thankfully there is salvation not too far around the North Circular, at Bang Bang Oriental Foodhall, that I have previously written about here. While the bustle and the excitement of upstairs can't be beaten if you fancy a quick bowl of noodles or a bubble tea or slice of pandan swiss roll or a brightly-coloured Korean shaved ice dessert, I'm beginning to favour Golden Dragon, the more serene and refined Chinese restaurant that can be found in the ground floor.

We visited recently for Sunday dim sum, something I have pretty much given up trying to write about - there's only so many superlatives you can come up with to describe the endless baskets of dumplings and buns that a proper yum cha feast involves - but it would be remiss not to talk at least a little bit about our meal.

First out were the pork puffs, which have been a favourite since our visit to the original Tim Ho Wan restaurant in Hong Kong. Flaky lard-enriched pastry stuffed with sweet barbecued pork, these are a must order (even if my wife always seems to get the extra bun).

The main event was out next - some top drawer crispy pork belly - layers of sweet meat and wobbly fat, topped with a crisp carapace of crackling, even better when dipped into a sauce that was very reminiscent of Colman's mustard. Alongside were chinese greens, this time gai lan, stir-fried with big chunks of fresh ginger, to help bust the Ewing's cold.

We also had a selection of steamed dumplings, including some unmemorable, UFO-shaped ones stuffed with chopped scallop and some nice crunchy veg; verdant prawn and chive; excellent har gau (truly the king of dim sum) and the special cheung fun stuffed with scallop, char sui and prawns. Luckily the Ewing isn't really a fan of the slippery, slithery steamed rice dough wrappers. All the more for me then. 

One of the best things about dim sum is the fact you get pudding at the same time as your main. My faves are the custard buns, either deep fried or steamed. Far better than a doughnut This time we went with the latter, the puffy, squidgy balls bursting with oozy yellow egg custard.

We were back again for a roasted meat fix not long after. This time for an evening visit following a visit to Go Outdoors to buy a new tent and mattress for our camping trip. The next day. As you can appreciate the icy Tsingtao was well needed.

Roast duck and rice was a decent specimen- if you go to the loos at the back of the restaurant you can see all the roasts meats as you walk past the kitchen, hanging glistening in the window - with a good ratio of glossy, lacquered skin to sweet fat and tender meat. With a heap of fluffy rice, salty soy sauce and some token steamed greens, I struggle to think of a more perfect plate of Chinese food. Or any food, for that matter.

One thing the Chinese are good at is elevating the humble pig and I have wanted to try mei cai kou rou – steamed belly pork with mustard greens – for a long while. Fortunately I managed to persuade the Ewing that she did too. 

It’s a Hakka dish, so not often seen on the predominantly Cantonese menus we are most familiar with – that consists of thick slices of streaky belly pork braised in a mix of star anise, ginger, Chinese wine, rock sugar and soy. The hunks of pork are braised until tender and served with the cooking liquor on a bed of fermented veg. All I can say after tasting it was; where have you been all my life? It was certainly worth the wait.

We also ordered some customary chinese greens, although the Ewing was slightly disappointed that the pea shoots were 'out of season', which lead to Googling later to find out when the pea shoot season is. (Answer: we still don't really know, but we are going to keep trying until they are available). The choi sum was on the menu, so we had that cooked with garlic.

Afterwards, as has become the custom, we went next door to Loong Fung supermarket and picked up some more veg, although if you're getting concerned this has become an #eatclean blog, this time they were in the form of deep fried spuds flavoured with cucumber. We also picked up a  basket stuffed full of crackers and mochi and frozen dumplings and fresh noodles. 

On balance, it's probably a good thing there's nowhere to get good Chinese food closer to home, as I've still got a cupboard full of ingredients to get through....

Monday, 8 July 2019

Rooting for it

I've pontificated on age before, but I'm definitely coming to realise that getting older is (mostly) a good thing. Apart from things occasionally popping and cracking and creaking, you don't really notice it's happening. You just begin to start waking up early and liking ready salted crisps and going to garden centres and voluntarily watching Sunday night TV.

I mention this after reading Grace Dent’s review of Woky Ko. A 'restaurant' housed in a shipping container at Bristol’s Wapping Wharf. While the level of cooking was ’very high’ she also decried the location as not a place to linger. Timely, as Woky Ko happens to be housed in the container right next to Root, the location for a recent long lunch date with my wife.

After Dent surmised ‘although I enjoyed myself, it was Saturday night and I wished I’d gone to a restaurant’, I wondered, as we turned up just as biblical rain clouds opened, are we just too old for this? (In my head narrated in a Carrie Bradshaw-esque voice, but really the only similarity was the way my hair had gone hella curly, thanks to the inclement weather.)

Things took an upward turn after we arrived, to a very genial, welcome to be presented with a drinks menu that included several local ciders, Being in the West Country, how could we resist? I chose a bottle of Pomme Pomme, a crisp keeved cider with quince from Pilton, and the Ewing went with Smokey Plum, a collaboration between Pilton and Wild Beers (who also have a bar opposite Root). 

They offer a seasonal sharing plates menu, consisting mainly of vegetable dishes with a few sustainably sourced fish and meat specials, from which we picked oysters, served topped with blackberry vinegar, herb oil and lime pickle. Of all my attempts to try and enjoy oysters (as opposed to just closing my eyes and thinking of England) this ranks up there with one of the most successful. Certainly one of the prettiest.

I do sometimes question why I keep persevering – I mean, I dislike hard boiled eggs, and I’m not planning to turn into Cool Hand Luke any time soon - but it’s moments like this when it seems worth it; the sharpness of the lime and berries taking the edge off the plump mollusc without overwhelming it’s creamy subtlety.

Purists may scoff at what sounds like such an outré combo, but it’s not that far from mignonette and a squeeze of lemon. Even the Ewing, who prefers her oysters au naturel, rhapsodised about these while lamenting we didn’t go for four for a tenner.

Gnudi - gnocchi-like dumplings made with Homewood ricotta instead of potato - had an ethereally light punchy cheese, filling barely contained inside a gossamer thin polenta crust. 

These glorious nuggets were served on a very good romesco - made with roast pepper, ground almond and sherry vinegar - sauce and were topped with 'wilding leaves'. While it felt a bit weird at first to have the lettuce getting warm on top of the hot dumplings, I really enjoyed this.

Beetroot came in lightly pickled discs and cooked chunks, alongside toasted hazelnuts and blueberries. It was the kind of simple arrangement that makes you think ‘oh, I should try and knock this up at home’, only to quickly realise that anything involving a beetroot in your own house – save popping open a jar of the stuff once a year, to go with Boxing Day dinner – quickly leads to the kitchen resembling a crime scene.

Far better to let the experts don the latex gloves and do the hard work, especially when the result looks as pretty and tastes as good as this did.

Cured sea bream with dill, cucumber and pickled chilli was pleasant without quite living up to the heady heights of the previous plates, with the fish rather lost by all the accompaniments. I did, however, very much enjoy how the blobs of (caramelised onion?) puree complimented the astringent pickles.

Isle of Wight tomatoes with baba ganoush and toasted homemade focaccia was delicious. So much so that, after being given first bite of the cherry tomato, as it were, the Ewing watched me carefully cleaving each chunk of bread in half, and then again in horror as I ate my share plus half of hers, too. 

What can I say, I think I was concentrating so hard on not hoovering it all up, so that pretty much what seemed to happen…. Or I was distracted by her sparkling wit and conversation. Either way, I’m hoping to atone by recreating something similar at home with our home-grown toms later in the summer (if we ever get a summer).

There’s few things – well, that I can talk about here, anyway - better than a dish of buttered cabbage and here a wedge of hispi cabbage – currently still on a one man mission to make the cabbage trendy – was charred until blackened around the edges and served in a pool of brackish seaweed butter punctuated with pickled shallots and covered in a neat carapace of raw, thinly sliced radish. 

Again, another dish that was beautiful to look at although slightly trickier to eat, as I watched the Ewing contrive to cut into and manage to flick a perfect arc of sauce all over herself. Still, worth the grease stains when brassicas taste this good.

We finished our mains with john dory, from the specials menu, served with smoked cod’s roe and chargrilled fennel. The dory was nice - pale yet interesting, the well-cooked flesh breaking in fine flakes – and who wouldn’t love fronds of slippery, sweet fennel with fish, but I was really here for that sauce. A big puddle of that with a bunch of crisp radishes, or raw fennel to scoop it up, plus a glass of crisp picopul would be almost as much fun as you could have on a summer afternoon.

Like the seldom seen rice pudding and spotted dick, rum baba, here served with carrot jam, is one of my must orders if I ever see it on the menu. Obviously, this was the only dish that was off on our visit. No matter, as it meant I got to branch out and try the pavlova with Cheddar (the nearby town, not the cheese) strawberries, strawberry sorbet, lime curd and, just to gild the lily, a jug of custard served alongside.

Normally not much of a meringue fan, this was an excellent pudding. Sharp curd and sorbet cutting through the sweetness of the fruit, with the lake of glorious vanilla custard tuning the crisp meringue all gooey and chewy. Along with the oyster that kicked things off, this was my standout dish.

The Ewing chose ice cream – chocolate malt with a pleasingly chewy texture and a cherry ripple, mined with chunks of fruit which she mixed together to make a kind of hybrid, frozen black forest gateaux. Good, and good value at £3.50 for two scoops, but not a patch on my pud (which, needless to say, I had eager assistance to help me finish).

The most scathing commentary in Dent's review was saved for the queue for the loos, housed away from the restaurants and accessed by a passcode and described as ‘all a bit day three at Glastonbury – jolly, but directionless’. Also timely as I sit here watching the evergreen Cure rip up the Pyramid stage on iPlayer.

Yes, the loo thing is a pain. Not helped by the fact we then had take it in turns to put our coats back on and navigate the delightful June weather. Although, after all that, I have to report, rather mundanely, the loos were absolutely fine. Rather nice in fact and far better than any festival I have ever attended.

In the end, though, it was the quality food that shone through (and the quality of my dining companion), even if the sun wasn't following suit. 

If you had told a younger me that the older version would be rhapsodising over raw radishes and tomatoes on toast, I probably wouldn't have believed you. But then I wouldn't have thought I'd have started enjoying Hoovering and walking up steep hills and watching Antiques Roadshow and Countryfile. No, I still draw the line at Countyfile.