Saturday, 31 August 2013

The Tavern, Cheltenham

Cheltenham, a fine English spa town found nestled on the edge of the Cotswolds, famous for its racecourse, promenade and Regency architecture. Of course it might have been helpful for the Ewing to have told me about her distaste for the latter before we actually arrived, instead of announcing it as we were pulling into the car park. But after driving for what felt like most of the morning, I wasn't going to let lack of appreciation for the local buildings spoil my appetite for lunch at the Tavern.

While the elegant, white painted stucco facades of Cheltenham’s terraces might not have appealed (I found them rather lovely), the Ewing was much more receptive to the Tavern’s mix of worn wood, dark leather and Moorish tiling. Indeed it’s a very fine looking pub, with all of the little touches - ‘proper’ gingham napkins, posh toiletries in the bathrooms and glass bottles of both still and sparkling water that arrive at the table unbidden – that make you feel pretty excited about the food coming out of the kitchen.

Our starters, from the bites menu, certainly promised good things to come. Their signature Spam fritters, nicely presented in an old tin of the reformed meat product, were great. Fatty, salty and encased in a proper fish shop batter, accompanied by a poky and piquant dipping sauce to cut through the richness. The marbled squid was beautiful; a summer mosaic on a plate. It was the kind of thing I could have quite happily eaten far, far more of, especially when scooped up onto the crispy bread and slathered in the first rate aioli it was served with.

The cracking beginning made the mains seem even more disappointing in comparison. My rib eye – from the grill menu that ranges from a flat iron steak through to a range of sharing cuts, including cote du boeuf, chateaubriand and t-bones-  a bit of a treat at £24, appeared rather grey, as though it had been gently simmered rather than given the fierce char-grilling that all steak deserves. While pleasingly pink inside, the lack of smoky crust on the steak’s exterior wasn’t helped by an absence of seasoning, or the strangely light and foamy béarnaise served alongside, that eluded any of the familiar thick, buttery glossiness.

Seasoning was a problem that also befell the Ewing’s burger; but, lack of sodium chloride aside, the patty was a good coarse grind, lettuce was shredded, the bun was bouncy and the cheese was Kraft. A solid effort, with all constituent parts present and correct, but lacking that little something. The rosemary shoestring fries, however, were monumental; a mix of crispy and soft, perfectly seasoned and impossible to stop eating.

Another decent accompaniment came in the form of the burnt end mash, which I was kindly allowed to swap for the advertised fries; chunks of tender beef nestling on top of fluffy potato and doused in a (very) piquant barbecue sauce. This looked rather lovely in its little enamel dish, and made a decent foil for my steak.

Things got firmly back on track with a pudding of shared hot chocolate ‘mousse’ with pistachio ice cream. The mousse turned out to be an, expertly timed, bitter chocolate fondant combining the perfect balance of a hot and gooey middle and crisp edges, and topped with an exemplary ball of smooth and nutty ice cream. It was also remarkably good value at £8, satisfying even the Ewing’s chocolate cravings.

While I couldn’t help feeling a little sad about my steak, I enjoyed our meal at the Tavern. It’s a lovely looking space with great, accommodating staff and an appealing menu that offers all the trendy fried things, burgers, dogs and French dips; as well as summery sounding plates such as rabbit papardelle with lemon and thyme; scallops with chorizo and sweet potato; whole roasted sea bass with anchovies and basil; and a wickedly Cara Maca cheesecake.

Add a large (and cheap) glass of Tempranillo, a bit of friendly chatter with the staff, and sunny stroll to see Cheltenham's Synagogue - described by Pevsner as 'one of the architecturally "best" non-Anglican ecclesiastical buildings in Britain' - and all seemed right with this civilised corner of the world.

The Tavern on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Jee Cee Neh, New Malden

Until our recent visit there were only two facts I knew about New Malden. Firstly, thanks to the endless post-Christmas adverts on TV when I was growing up, I knew it has a giant DFS with a huge range of cut price furniture. Secondly, is that it’s home to one of the largest expatriate communities of South Koreans in Europe, and is said to be one of the most densely populated area of Koreans outside South Korea.

While a new sofa would be nice it was the second fact that really intrigued me, and, following the familiar low growl of our stomachs to guide us, we had taken a Saturday to drive all the way over to the wilds of south west London in time lunch.

While there are over 15 Korean cafes and restaurants in the area, favourites seem to be down to personal preference. While Giles, John and Jay had all reviewed the, relatively glam, Su La, on the edge of town, I decided to head straight for the heart of New Malden for a recce, finally choosing Jee Cee Neh on Burlington road, lured in by the smell of grilling meat and the mix of Korean and Western customers we spied through the window.

To drink a couple of cold Hite Ice Point; a sweetish and inoffensive Korean lager, brewed with their 'Freezing Point Filtration System' from rice. What it lacks in flavour, it makes up with its clean, refreshing fizz that helps cuts swathes through the rich fermented flavours common in Korean food.

Unlike most gaffs in the centre of London, banchan, the little snacks and side dishes that accompany every meal, are provided free. Our selection included the ubiquitous kimchi (a fermented pickled cabbage) alongside salted beansprouts and wonderful dish of boiled sliced potatoes in koch’ujang chilli sauce.

To start proper, some Gun mando; decent fried pork, glass noddle and veg dumplings with a poky dipping sauce; and a portion of Hea mul pa jeon; a rice based seafood pancake; studded with spring onions and assorted seafood, including shrimp and baby octopus, and fried until crisp outside and slightly soft and gooey within.

We also enjoyed the Japchae, a traditional dish usually served at parties or special occasions, consisting of sweet potato noodles stir fried with beef and vegetables and garnished with sesame seeds and chilli. While I normally find sweet potato noodles glutinous and gummy, these were lovely and bouncy and well complimented by the seared, smoky beef and crunchy veg.

Of course the real reason we were there was for some barbecue action. The Koreans are well known for their love of grilled protein, with the most popular type being bulgogi (literally ‘fire meat’), which can be beef, pork or chicken, marinated with a mixture of soy sauce, sugar, sesame oil, garlic and pepper. Wafer thin cuts such as pork belly, beef sirloin or brisket, are popular, cooking almost instantly on tabletop gas or charcoal grills or portable stoves.

We chose a double portion (all meats must be ordered as a minimum of two servings if you want them cooked tableside) of the LA galbi, or beef rib. This cut, named by Korean immigrants in America who found the butchers slice the meat differently in California, sees thin pieces of meat being sliced across the bone. If you want to try the traditional Korean cut, not offered here, look for Wang Galbi, literally meaning King Ribs. In this version the meat is filleted in layers away from the bone to form a uniformly thin concertina-like strip of beef.

Soon a metal hot plate was bought to the table, quickly followed by a weighty platter of thick beef strips that had been marinating in soy sauce, garlic, and sugar, and dishes of pajori, or spring onion salad, lettuce leaves (for wrapping), slices of raw green chilli and garlic, and ssamjang, a fermented bean and chilli paste.

While other, saner, people were off enjoying the August heat and barbecuing al fresco, it may have seemed like a slightly foolish decision to elect to sit by a fearsome propane fuelled grill. But that first taste of the seared rib, adorned with fresh chilli, garlic and sweet bean paste and snugly wrapped in its lettuce leaf cocoon, made it all seem worthwhile.

When it comes to deserts, the choice is easy; there isn't one. In stead large slices of chilled watermelon are bought to the table, unbidden, to finish the meal perfectly.

While the food was very good, I think my favourite part of the meal came as we were finishing our lunch. With the stoves shut down for the afternoon, the ladies from the kitchen came and sat at the table next to us to share several plates of pa jeon pancakes and some raucous gossip, reinforcing the sense of close-knit homeliness and generosity about the place.

This is food you know you've eaten; a powerful and pungent cuisine – the Japanese didn't, disparagingly, call the Koreans garlic eaters for nothing – that may linger on your breath and seep from your pores for hours after. But, as well as packing a serious umami punch, there were also deft touches of skill, and, unlike a cheap Chinese takeaway, it didn't leave me dry-mouthed and fuzzy headed through a sodium and MSG overload. And surely all those raw alliums must go some way counteract the strain on the heart from all the of fried food and grilled meat….

Jee Cee Neh on Urbanspoon

Friday, 23 August 2013

Antepliler, Green Lanes

Harringay's Green Lanes - one of the longest roads in the capital, the heart of the Turkish community in London, and, according to my Southwark-dwelling friend, Stealth, even further away than deepest darkest Peru.

While it may be a bit of a schlep to get there from south of the river, the comforts of an air-conditioned tube carriage made things a lot more pleasant on a rather muggy Sunday afternoon. We also had the pleasure of the company of Stealth’s friend, CB, waiting for us, not to mention the prospect of a decent kebab and a cold lager to soak up the weekend’s excesses.

A high concentration of eateries in a small area helps keep competition fierce and prices low, so the majority of us can reasonably hope that even a second rate kebab sold here will dance all over the fatty, garlic sauce smothered offerings peddled from most kerbside vans in the land. Nevertheless, I had dutifully spent most of Friday afternoon at work Googling prospective options to eat, not wanting to take the chance of picking the duff one.

I finally picked Antepliler, mainly after reading that on one side of the main restaurant was a ‘liver shop’, selling skewers of grilled offal, while on the other side is their own baklava café. And while the prospect of grilled testicles was a little too daunting, sweet pastries and strong coffee makes a great end to most meals.

After a potentially comical mix up - where Stealth and the Ewing disappeared out of my sight for a minute and I found they were already sitting patiently inside the liver shop - we finally found the right door and were soon queuing up alongside most of North London for our dinner.

The wait to be seated was made more bearable, but rather hotter, by standing next to the wood fired oven and watching them slinging freshly made lahmancun - a kind of Turkish flatbread/pizza hybrid - being fired in their brick oven. And, at £1.50 for a takeaway lahmancun and salad wrap, this must surely rate as one of the biggest bargains west of the Bosphorus.

Mercifully the wait for a seat and the first round of beers was a short one, and we were son tucking in to shared plates of Turkish bread and salad; crisp borek parcels with their creamy feta and parsley filling; feather light whipped humous topped with pan fried lamb and garlic. A couple of paper thin lahmacun fresh from the oven, finished our first course; one topped with tomatoes, the other with garlic and parsley and both liberally covered with minced lamb.

I first realised my mixed grill was going to be on the larger side when, on ordering, our waiter lightly raised an eyebrow, before saying, 'just for you?' Of course, the towering plate that arrived was far more than any mere mortal could reasonably manage alone, but being forced to chose between just one grill or kebab dish proved an impossibility, and I'd rather have the meat sweats than any regrets about what I hadn't chosen.

In the end I managed pretty admirably, eating all the smoky lamb ribs, sweet, crispy chicken wings and lamb shish and half of the simit kofte - ground lamb mixed with parsley and bulgar wheat and spiced with red pepper flakes. Only a few chunks of chicken shish, a pile of chickpea-studded cous cous and half a blistered Turkish green chilli pepper eluded me.

The ladies enjoyed, clockwise from the top; Ali Nazik, diced lamb and peppers on a bed of strained yoghurt and smoked aubergine puree; Fistikli Kebab, skewered lamb shish with pistachio and cheese and parsley piyaz; and the Sogan Kebab, lamb kofte and baby shallots with a sweet and sour pomegranate dressing.

While I struggle to see how things could really go that wrong when your starting point is lamb and a open flame, all of the mains were impeccable. And, despite sharing several key ingredients, everything managed to taste distinctively different. Always an impressive feat.

On finishing our bottles of cold Efes - not mentioned on the menu, but offered, conspiratorially, to us by our waiter, alongside options of wine and raki - we made our way to the coffee shop next door for a sweet ending to the evening.

I might, as the Roscoe family are wont, sometimes be guilty of hyperbole when recanting tales, but I can genuinely say that during many years of Middle Eastern pastry eating - including in Turkey and Greece - none have matched the pistachio baklava at Antepliler.

Lurking underneath the buttery, syrup-soaked layers of pastry nestled a layer of the freshest, brightest pistachios I have eaten. And while they might not have the selection found at my other favourite, Tugra in Stoke Newington, just one forkful sent my spirits (and my blood sugar) soaring. We also shared a kitchen tile sized slice of Kadaif, a vermicelli topped sweetmeat, freshly cut from a huge pan on the counter, as well as a couple of walnut filled morsels which went rather nicely with my cup of peppermint tea.

Apparently, you can also find freshly made Künefe - a shredded vermicelli dough that is stuffed with cheese and fried in butter before being doused in syrup - at the Antepliler liver shop on the corner. A seldom seen speciality from the South of Turkey that is cooked on the adjacent grill to their offal kebabs and certainly worthy of a further visit to N1.

Needless to say, all of this cost little more than pocket change, with our mountain of food and drinks from both places coming to about twenty quid a head, before tip, with plenty of leftovers. Service, especially in the restaurant, was light-hearted without being too over-bearing.

The only down side came with the schlep across London to get back home; but the warm summer evening, and a plethora of places to stop for boxes of sugar dusted lokum and freshly baked pide on the way back to Manor Farm tube, it's a hardship that wasn't too hard to bear.

Antepliler on Urbanspoon

Friday, 16 August 2013

Feu Mac at the Gamekeeper's Lodge, Chesham

Having eaten many different meals in many different places, I often return to the popular theory that the best food is inversely proportional to the fanciness of the surroundings it is served in. While, of course, there are exceptions to the rule, stunning views often means sub-par grub at inflated prices, while dingy back streets filled with inauspicious looking eateries have to rely on good cooking and word of mouth.

Which is why I had high hopes for our meal at Phomac - a Vietnamese restaurant and takeaway recently opened at back of the Gamekeeper’s Lodge pub in Chesham - despite my Dad, who was staying with me and kindly offered to give me a lift, and both the Ewing and our friend Maz, dining companions for the evening, all remaining resolutely sceptical. Indeed, my Dad’s first words while trying to turn around in the car park with out blowing all the tyres on the hire car on potholes, was; ‘is this definitely it?’

It is true that this wouldn’t be the most obvious location for a taste of old Hai Noi. The Gamekeeper’s is a resolutely old school hostelry, complete with pool table, horse brasses tacked along the bar and a variety of stuffed curios and fishing memorabilia decorating the walls. You may say it has ‘character’; it also has very friendly staff and a decent, cheapish, pint of Bombardier which I find provides a good starting point to most evenings.

Having already studied the menu at home I already had a pretty good idea of what I wanted to try, starting with the lace-thin pork and prawn Bánh xèo, or sizzling cake, so called because of the sound the turmeric-tinged batter makes when hitting the pan. The crisp pancake was folded around slivers of meat, shrimps, spring onion and bean sprouts and came with the traditional fresh herbs and lettuce leaves to wrap plus a dish of fish sauce and chilli for dipping. Far more fun than a spring roll.

Given half a chance and the Ewing orders prawn summer rolls, my idea of the quintessential Vietnamese snack, after she fell in love with them when I took her for a birthday meal down the Kingsland Road a few years ago. The translucent rice wrappers came ready stuffed with their seafood, noodle and herb filling, rather than being an assemble yourself job, saving on their laundry bill, and made the perfect choice for a hot and sticky evening.

The ladie's mains were both soup based, with the Ewing choosing the beef pho and Maz the beef bún huế. Generous bowls of deep, lemongrass-scented, meaty stock, full of rare slices of beef and springy rice noodles and served with side dishes of beansprouts and herbs for scattering on top.

I went for the ‘dry’ Hai Noi seabream version of the bún huế, a dish served with all the soup accoutrements, but no stock. My bowl with its little nuggets of turmeric dusted fish, crunchy peanuts and bundles of zippy fresh mint and perilla leaves was the perfect balance of spicy, sour, salty and sweet. 

Maz also ordered a plate of the delicate steamed prawns in a coconut cream and lemongrass flavoured sauce, while the Ewing insisted on the scallops fried with ginger and spring onion. Both were chock-full of sweet seafood, with the prawns being particularly good.

To finish Vietnamese coffee - rich and sweet with the addition condensed milk - available both hot or iced. They also have banana fritters and a changing selection of tropical fruit, but even a whiff of a durian would have been a step too far after such a feast.

While you can eat in the small restaurant area at the back, they were happy to serve our food to us in the pub, or even outside in the garden; a good option if you happen to visit on an unseasonably warm day, as we did, when you've already had two showers and it's not even seven o'clock. Casual surroundings also seem to encourage sitting back and talking lots of nonsense, which is something that us three are very practised at when we get together. Girls, gossip and good food, a perfect trilogy.

Feu Mac on Urbanspoon

Sunday, 11 August 2013

Raspberry Chambord Chip Ice Cream

This summer has, so far, been the perfect combination of good weather and good fun. We've also had the pleasure of my sweet-toothed Dad coming over from Australia to stay, giving me even more reason to get in the kitchen and rustle up some sugary treats.

Dad's visit happily coincided with our annual jaunt over to Peterlee PYO Farm, and this summer yielded a bumper haul of raspberries, blackcurrants and gooseberries. Trying to be organised, I decided to avoid the yearly temptation to chuck everything in the freezer, only to find it fused into an unrecognisable lump come the New Year, and got to work turning the baskets of berries into something delicious.

On the way home from the PYO, I couldn't resist popping in to the farm shop and buying a pot of glorious buttercup yellow, Lacey's double cream. This is, for my money, some of the very best dairy you could hope to taste; made on a farm just up the road from the milk of pedigree Guernsey cows, and so thick you have to squeeze it out of the bottle like toothpaste.

Armed with fresh fruit and fresh cream, digging out the ice cream maker seemed like the only sensible option. I initially wondered if the richness might be too much for the berries, smothering their sharp edge in a bland blanket of dairy, but the cream brings out the naturally cheesy edge in the fruit, and a good squirt of lemon stopped things becoming too cloying.

In order to treat the ingredients with the reverence they deserved I decided, for the first time in all my years of ice cream making, to use a proper custard made with cooked egg yolks and milk (and about five different pans and dishes and two sieves), rather than my favoured whole egg, no-chance-of-scrambling, base. With my ice bath and silicone spatula at the ready, it was surprisingly simple to make and provided an extra glossy and luxurious richness to the finished ice cream.

Gilding the lily I also threw in some chopped dark chocolate, for texture, and a slug of Chambord black raspberry liqueur. As well as tasting good, the Chambord also stopped the ice cream freezing too solid, a shot or two of bourbon, vodka, rum or any suitable liqueur lingering at the back of the cupboard would work equally well, too.

They say the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and with my Dad and the Ewing off to the freezer for seconds before I had even finished my first helping, I knew it had been worth using every bowl in the cupboard.

Raspberry Chambord Chip Ice Cream
Adapted from David Leibovitz 'The Perfect Scoop'

350ml raspberry puree, sieved to remove seeds
Juice of half a lemon
350ml cups double cream
350ml cups milk
200g golden caster sugar
4 egg yolks
2 tbsps Chambord
75g dark chocolate, chopped finely
To make raspberry puree:  Puree 6 cups of raspberries in a food processor, then press them through a mesh strainer with a flexible rubber spatula, or use a food mill.

Warm the half-and-half and sugar in a medium saucepan. Pour the cream into a large bowl and set a mesh strainer over the top.

In a separate medium bowl, whisk together the egg yolks. Slowly pour the warm milk into the egg yolks, whisking constantly, then scrape the warmed egg yolks back into the saucepan.

Stir the mixture constantly over medium heat with a heatproof spatula, scraping the bottom as you stir, until the mixture thickens and coats the spatula. Pour the custard through the strainer and stir it into the cream. Mix in the raspberry puree and lemon juice, then stir until cool over an ice bath.

Chill thoroughly in the refrigerator, but to preserve the fresh raspberry taste, churn the ice cream within 4 hours after making the mixture.

Once churned eat immediately or place into a freezer-proof container(away from prying house guests) and freeze until needed.

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

The Swan, Denham Village

After five years together, the Ewing and I decided to celebrate our half a decade of happiness and joy/pain and suffering (delete as appropriate) with dinner at the Swan, situated in the rather lovely Denham Village.

Part of the, four strong, Salisbury group, they describe their ethos on the website thus; 'we searched the highways and (often forgotten) byways of the Chilterns to create our little clutch of born again boozers. Our pubs are for everyone - you may even have to step over a dog or two on your way to the bar. This is how it has always been and how we like it.' And, having already eaten at their the Old Queens Head in Penn, it's pretty agreeable to me, too.

Making the most of the scorching summer weather, we were quick to nab a table outside on their large, tiered patio. As we initially got together amid a backdrop of pub gardens - plus copious pints of Strongbow and packets of Walker's salt and vinegar - it seemed rather appropriate to be dining al fresco again, albeit in somewhat classier circumstances.

Despite the hunger-sapping heat I was determined to enjoy three courses; firstly as I was only just back chewing solid food after some recent gum surgery, and secondly as a double course of antibiotics had put pay to any ideas of a celebratory drink, meaning I felt obliged to make up for the the lost calories through an enticing mixture of fat and sugar.

Thankfully it was an obliging kind of menu, featuring plenty of local and seasonal produce, with a few unusual, but not too outré, twists.

A case in point being rather curious and very refreshing, tatziki sorbet, a frozen mixture of cucumber mint and yoghurt, which played very nicely with the spicy heat of my lamb kebab.

The kebab itself was a thing of utter wonder. Grilled lamb is one of my very favourite things, the deep, slight gamey notes and sweet fat responding particularly well to the combination of spice and an open flame. I’m not sure quite what marinade the local Stockings Farm lamb, had been rolled about in before it was cooked, but it tasted fantastic, the meat being perfectly crispy and soft and smoky all at once.

My only criticisms were the lack of bread for mopping up the sublime juices, and the fact I could have happily eaten rather more of it.

The Ewing chose the goat’s cheese panna cotta with salt baked beets, peppery watercress and balsamic. This was a gloriously rich and smooth take on a classic combo, with the slight funk of a good chevre, and none of the unpleasant gelatinous wobble found in a lesser cooked cream. A decent portion, too, meaning there was plenty to share with me.

Mains continued in the same successful vein. My pollock was a fine piece of flaky, fresh fish, and was well complimented by sweet pink grapefruit, glazed fennel and a brown crab sauce of serious depth and deliciousness. While I was really hankering after a bowl of skinny fries, a side order of sautéed new potatoes still hit the spot.

The Ewing tackled the behemoth of 15 hour braised Amersham lamb shoulder with mint gnocchi and a rosemary cream. This was some serious cooking, with a serious portion size to match. Luckily she was quite happy to swop plates half way through so I too could experience the melting meat, heady sauce and fluffy potato dumplings for myself.

Even the Ewing had trouble devouring all of her vast chocolate delice, served with cherry ripple ice cream and cherry sauce. This was a proper pudding for the most hardened chocolate lovers; dense, dark and bitter; cut through by the tart cherries and sweet, milky ice.

The strawberry sundae was the sugary kiss of midsummer and a pinnacle of its ilk. A rich confection of cream, custard and macerated berries perfumed with local elderflower and topped with a ball of vanilla ice cream and a buttery poppy seed twirl. A grown up desert that leaves you feeling very much like a small kid again as you scrape the long-handled spoon once more around the dregs at the bottom of the glass.

Throughout our years together I have come to realise the Ewing makes a very fine chauffeur, pot washer, cake baker and general 'fixer'. But, while these things are all well and good, she is also funny, a great dining companion and, most importantly, puts up with me. Happily our lovely meal at the Swan Inn matched the lovely company.

The Swan Inn on Urbanspoon