Thursday, 27 February 2014

The Tommyfield, Kennington

A weekend at Stealth’s that started with a catch-up with friends and Chinese New Year celebrations in Lewisham, followed two night’s compromised sleep- punctuated by a, memorable (or best forgotten), trip to Brockley Market on Saturday morning – meant it was rather a surprise we were fit for much at all come Sunday afternoon.

But, as it was, we all felt surprisingly chipper; the sun was out, Stealth, very gallantly, offered to carry my heavy bags, we were looking forward to supping a nice pint of something cold and refreshing in some good company.

The Tommyfield, named after the 19th century London market that was home to Britain’s first fish and chip shop, is part of the Renaissance pub group and boasts a menu that offers sustainable English fish, old school pie and mash and free-range meat from their farm in Hampshire. They also have real ales, and soon we were all firmly ensconced at our table on the raised seating area, pints of, Battersea brewed, Wandle in hand.

It’s an agreeable sort of place that manages to artfully straddle the knack of balancing the sticky floor, rugby and real ale crowd with those who prefer a comfy sofa, a bloody mary and the weekend papers. And, being around the corner from Stealth’s house - our home away from home - it feels something like a local.

Despite the good memories, there is a disputed tale about one of our previous visits here. I believed that Stealth, rather touchingly, was taking me for a solo ‘bonding pint' one Saturday afternoon; while she maintains that we stopped because the shopping bags we were carrying back to her house were too heavy and she needed a mid-point breather. Good friends, eh.

The Ewing and I coerced the others to share the Heritage Beetroot and Tunworth Salad with Honey Dressing, despite the clear antipathy from the opposite side of the table toward the red root veg. This emotional manipulation came about as it was one of the cheeses served at our wedding breakfast and has now become a firm favourite.

Thankfully the Tunworth was a success, although half the table still haven’t changed their minds about beetroot. Luckily for us this meant we got to finish the dishes. While the Ewing really enjoyed the salad, served with frisee lettuce and orange segments, I found the honey dressing a little too one-note against the sweet veg and fruit slices, and at £6.75, it wasn’t cheap.

If the starters seemed on the spendy side, the mains appeared a veritable bargain. Boris, our companion for the afternoon, and I had the Orkney dry aged roast beef with Yorkshire pudding, which at £12.50 was decent value, and most importantly, a pretty masterful roast.

The plates came heaped with rare slices of thinly carved beef, crisp sweet greens and carrots, with a hidden cache of sticky spuds and parsnips buried at the bottom of the pile, and the hole lot was crowned by a superlative Yorkie – I later found it was National Yorkshire pudding day – with the requisite amounts of both stodge and crunch. They serve very good gravy and a particularly potent horseradish sauce, too.

The Ewing had the rabbit pie from the specials board, served with your choice of carbs or greens. This certainly looked the part, with its burnished pastry lid, complete with pastry rabbit, glowing in the afternoon sunlight. Taste wise the filling was good, if a touch dry – the perennial problem with bunny – but with excellent pastry and another steal at £12.50.

Stealth had the battered halloumi strips, a kind of poor man’s veggie fish and chips, which she proclaimed to be very good. Despite being such a fan of sharing her food - an ongoing debate that crops up during most mealtimes together - I noticed we were only offered some of her fried potatoes and not the fried cheese (she might also have noticed she wasn’t offered any roast beef…).

The others tried to cry off the prospect of pudding, but I had honed my eye on the banoffee pie served with a glass of Monbazillac. In the end we all managed, surprisingly successfully, to share a solitary slice of pie and a whole bottle of the desert wine; a very agreeable ratio.

I love a good sticky pudding wine, and always feel sad that it seems to be relegated to high days and holidays. This seemed the perfect occasion to share a glass or two; both complementing the deep wedge of banana-flecked, caramel and cream confection and crowning the finale of a fabulous weekend.

The Tommyfield on Urbanspoon

Sunday, 23 February 2014

Big Mac Pie

I still recall the grand occasion of my my first Big Mac; some friends had come to visit and their dad offered to bring up a treat for us on the way to pick them up. I remember popping open the lid of the CFC-laden, squeaky yellow polystyrene box - global warming didn't exist in the mid-eighties - and inhaling the sweet, spicy smell; I remember the glorious anticipation as I held it triumphantly aloft in both hands; but mostly I remember how bafflingly disappointed I was by the burger itself. Too much bread, too little meat, and warm soggy lettuce. I have to concede, the sauce was  pretty amazing, though.

From that moment onward I've been a resolutely a quarter pounder with cheese kind of girl, and while I've occasionally dabbled with the odd Big Mac throughout the years, desperately wanting it to live up to it's beefy promise, it's always left me with a greasy taste of regret. 

My enduring fascination with the potential of this iconic burger meant that I was very excited to stumble upon this, rather bonkers sounding, recipe for Big Mac Pie in Niki Segnit's Flavour Thesaurus. If you don't already own a copy of this fascinating tome, then it comes highly recommended. Staple bedtime reading and very witty, too.

Comprising of a mixture of corned beef (apparently minced beef just didn't cut it), mustard and dill baked in a pastry crust, it was either going to be incredible or inedible. Fortunately it was very much the former; sweet beef, tangy mustard and dill-spiked pickles enveloped in the buttery crunch of shortcrust pastry. 

While it may not be much of a looker, the flavour resemblance to the famed burger was truly uncanny. The final stamp of approval came from the Ewing. When I told what I had made, and that there was some left in the fridge if she wanted a slice, the response was decidedly muted. A little while later I received a text message imploring me to buy more tins of Fray Bentos so I could make another one. 

The original recipe called for a layer of sliced tomatoes, but, fearing flavourless winter tomatoes would make the base soggy, I used ketchup and finely chopped onion. Dill pickle also appeared rather elusive, so I used some finely chopped sweet dill pickle slices and, to play on the burger theme, finished the pie off with a good scattering of toasted sesame seeds.

If you want to really go to town then serve a slice with a shredded iceberg salad dressed with a 'burger sauce dressing' - made from 70:30 mix of mayo and ketchup and a spoonful of finely chopped pickled cucumber and a little dried dill stirred through.

Big Mac Pie
1 quantity of shortcrust pastry (approx 320g) rolled to the thickness of a pound coin
1 tin of corned beef
1/2 onion, finely chopped
2 tbsp tomato ketchup
3 tbsp sweet dill pickles, finely chopped (or use a sweet dill pickle relish)
1 tbsp american yellow mustard
1 tbsp dried dill
1 egg, beaten
Sprinkling of toasted sesame seeds

Pre heat the oven to 190c
Line a 21cm tart tin with half the pastry.
Spread the pastry base with half the ketchup and half the onion.
Mix the corned beef, pickles, mustard and dill together and add to the tart.
Layer with the rest of the ketchup and onion.
Top with the remaining pastry, trim any rough edges and make a small slit for the team to escape.
Brush with the egg wash and finish pie with sprinkling of sesame seeds.
Bake for 40-445 minutes, or until golden brown.
Allow to cool completely before slicing.

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Silk Road, Camberwell

I've have previously mentioned the magical Stealth's shocking revelation that, after two decades of knowing her, she doesn't like Chinese food. Despite my extreme scepticism over this assertion, it seemed like my plans to drag her and the Ewing to the almost universally lauded, Silk Road had been, at least temporarily, thwarted.

Thankfully the auspicious colliding of Chinese New Year and arranging to meet our Brixton-based fried, Emily Mary, meant that only a very small amount of arm-twisting was required to persuade all concerned that they really wanted to spend a rainy Friday evening in deepest darkest Camberwell.

The evening started with plenty of salacious gossip and congratulations over Emily Mary's upcoming nuptials, before turning to the far more serious matter of dinner. Silk Road specialises in the cuisine of the Xinjiang region - found in the remote, Northwest reaches of mainland China. Instead of battered sweet and sour and beef and black beans expect to find plenty of lamb, potatoes, kebabs and wheat noodles on the menu.

A round of Tsing Tao (£2.50 a pop), and a plate of boiled pork and celery dumplings (£3.00) were first out the kitchen While looking rather wan and unassuming on first sight - the sodium-loving Stealth wasted no time in dousing half the plate in soy for dipping - with the first taste all our fears were allayed.

With the highly seasoned and juicy filling encased by the springy homemade wrappers, they made the perfect opening when paired with bottles of icy cold beer. The plates of crisp-edged, pan-fried pork and leek dumplings whizzing past us also looked pretty fantastic.

From the Xinjiang style dishes we chose the perennially popular Lamb shish; chunks of meat and fat taht threaded onto metal skewers and covered in liberal drifts of salt and cumin before being grilled until crisp. The finished dish is fragrant and intensely savoury, and clearly a best-seller judging from the vaporous fug of meaty smoke that perfumes the back of the restaurant as you walk past the kitchen to the loo. 

Best eaten quickly - as if there would be much danger of leftovers with something so moreish - as delicious as they taste while sizzling hot, not many relish chewing on gobbets of cold lamb fat (although I used to adore my Mum's cold roast lamb sandwiches, with a liberal amount of English mustard).

A plate of garlic and fresh chilli strewn pak choi, ordered for the Ewing, was good, but the Home-Style Cabbage was better. Possibly the moist lauded Silk Road dish, here they take the boring brassica and raise it to sublime heights. Leaves of cabbage are lightly braised in a deep stock, which is infused with the slow-burning heat of smoky dried red chilli. Sweet and crunchy brilliance.

The big plate chicken; a behemoth of a bowl of broth, potatoes and chicken thigh on the bone. If there doesn't seem enough to be getting on with then fear not; after you take your first few ladles of stock the dish is supplemented with even more carbs in the form of a huge portion of hand made belt noodles.

This dish is really something pretty special, a stock fragranced with star anise and a healthy dose of citrussy, numbing Szechuan pepper and swimming with juicy chunks of chicken and waxy spuds. At a mere £15 for the dish, this was stupidly good value, with a vast amount of food, that left even us four gannets defeated (they kindly boxed up the leftovers to take home).

The bill for four of us came to £44; no, that's not a typo. For just over a tenner a head we managed to stuff ourselves silly and had tomorrow's breakfast covered to boot.

So, not many quid lighter and with the thick scent of cumin-scented smoke in our hair, we made it out into the drizzle to catch for the N89 back to Walworth. A very happy Chinese New Year indeed.

Silk Road on Urbanspoon

Saturday, 15 February 2014

Beerfuddled in Brum - Ten of the Best

While the New Year seems to have been hijacked with resolutions of detoxing and ditching the pub for the gym, I always feel it's the perfect season to stay off the wagon, banish the late winter blues with a pint by the fire and try and help keep some of this fair land's historic hostelries afloat. Or so I tell myself when I realise I'm half cut early on a weekday afternoon...

Thankfully there are no shortage of options for good drinking in Birmingham, with the generic Walkabouts and Spoons that line Broad Street - proudly advertising their toxic neon shots, cheap lager and student nights -  being easily bypassed for the charms of some of the magnificent back street boozers that pepper the Second City. 

First stop on our 'Top 10 tour' was the Craven Arms, handily just around the corner from our hotel. Originally owned by Holder's Brewery, it's a resplendent looking building, with its smart red brickwork and bright gold and blue Majolica tiling that decorates the exterior.

The Craven has recently been taken over by Black Country Ales (based in Dudley), and as well as serving a trilogy of their beers there are nine more, regularly rotating, real ales on tap, with plenty of rare and unusual drops to be found from breweries across the country.

I started with a Black Country Pig on the Wall, followed by a pint of the Fireside, while the Ewing chose apint of the Black Iris Rye IPA followed by of the Brodie's Pumpkin Porter (thankfully she only wanted a half, as it worked out twice as expensive as the others, at a whopping £7.20 a pint).

All beers were in fine condition, although we ended up swapping our first pints as I preferred the banana bread and and spice from the IPA, while the Ewing liked the liquorice and caramel flavour of the dark mild. 

While the beer was top-notch, I'm not sure we ate anything better on the whole trip than the home made cobs (roll, bap, barmcake, tea cake, bun etc.) kept on the bar. While I was sad we weren't going to be around for the local pork pie delivery - available every Thursday from 6.00 - these more than made up for it.

One with Sparkenhoe Red Leicester and red onion and one Blacky ham and Colman's mustard cut in half and washed down with beer and the football results. A perfect trilogy. The Craven is a wonderful pub, and the perfect antithesis for the sterile hub of rampant commercialism that is the Mailbox complex next door. A must stop for any beer lover.

Although we had Saturday evening date with a balti there was still time for one more drink and the next stop on the tour was the nearby subterranean Post Office Vaults, at the top of New Street in the town centre. 

As the name suggests, this underground drinking den was once the place you came to buy stamps and weigh parcels, but is now home to a bar that stocks over 327 different bottled beers - one of the largest selections in the country. A selection of different bottles, as well as dried hops and old photographs of Brum line the walls, and they've also got some nice Belgian beer prints.

We arrived just after the match had finished, and there was a veritable scrum to get anywhere near the bar. The result must have been the right one though, and despite the squeeze the banter was friendly and welcoming. A shout out to the two ladies manning the bar too, possibly the most clued-up service of all the places we visited.

With such a range of libations, there should be something here to suit everyone. We stuck to the cask ale, with a pint of the Byatt's Big Cat, a 4% bitter from Coventry, for me, while the Ewing chose another local brew, the Beowulf Killer Stout from Brownhills in Staffordshire, clocking in at a whopping 7.9% - something she had neglected to notice when choosing but quickly realised on the first, treacle-like, mouthful. 

This was a bruiser of a beer, dark and thick with the notes of coffee and leather and just the thing to set us up for our curry at Al Frash in Sparkbrook.

The following morning dawned fresh and bright, and luckily we both, somehow, felt much the same. First stop was the, Nicholson owned, Shakespeare Inn on Summer Row (confusingly, they also own another pub called the Shakespeare on Temple Street).

The Shakespeare Inn is a handsome Victorian pub on the edge of the Jewellery quarter. Birmingham was the centre of the British jewellery trade in the mid-nineteenth century, and many local gold and silversmiths would have called to quench their thirst; although, on a Sunday morning there was little sign of any craftsmen, save for a few harmless piss-artists already propping up the bar.

The interior is rather charming, in a pleasingly old fashioned way, with its dark wood panelling, flock wallpaper and mis-matched furniture. The front area is bright and open, but there is a warren of hidden rooms and alcoves at the back, if you'd prefer to have a more private rendezvous.

First beer of the day turned out to be my favourite drop on the whole trip, a pint of Pure Ubu from the Purity Brewing Company in Warwickshire. This creamy amber ale, with hints of orange, malt and toffee, proved the perfect breakfast beer.

The Ewing also enjoyed her libation, a spicy Nicholson's bloody Mary; tomato juice and vodka topped off with a draught of their own pale ale.

For a fiver, including a pot of tea and toast The Shakespeare's fry up was a decent effort - being possibly, along with the Sunday roast, the hardest thing to nail properly, with so many permutations and combinations of what makes up the quintessential English breakfast.

Here everything was present and correct, properly cooked and served hot; the sausages were peppered with the pleasant pop of mustard seeds; butter was the real deal; and the bacon was crisp-edged and smoky. I can't comment on the eggs, being an avowed avoider, but the Ewing ate her brace, then my two as well, so they must have passed muster. too.

After an afternoon spent enjoying a bottle of the eponymous Electric Ale and a home made chocolate cookie, while watching the Wolf of Wall Street at the nearby Electric cinema, we popped over the road for further libations at the Victoria 'Theatre Bar and Deep South Diner'.

The Ewing really liked this place, big sofas, nice and toasty, and some Southern-inspired food (their Cajun roast was on the Indy's 50 best list) from the Soul Food Project. Chance of a roast however were scuppered with early closing for their works do, luckily there was still plenty of time to enjoy a libation.

I eschewed the beer for a Red Snapper; a hangover lifting libation that mixed Beefeater gin with all the standard bloody mary accoutrements, substituting the more commonplace Tabasco with a few shakes of the blistering Louisiana hot sauce, and all garnished with a celery stalk - often cited as an annoying distraction, that threatens to stab you in the eye as you sup, but here proving a fibre and vitamin filled bonus.

The Ewing went with the Victorian lemonade, an almond and absinthe infused, gin-based beverage that was part of their two for one Sunday cocktail deal. Although she only wanted one drink the, very friendly and very persuasive, bar staff were insistent on adding double measures of alcohol so she wouldn't miss out.

The night demanded one more drink, and while the comfy sofas and warmth of the Victoria threatened to lull us into another round, I insisted we tried another hostelry. Unfortunately, rather like the Victoria before, both the Old Joint Stock opposite the cathedral and the Old Contemptibles by Snow Hill Station, were closed early for renovation/belated staff parties.

Undeterred we trekked to the Queens Arms, a handsome looking pub with a ornate mirrored bar stocked with a huge range of sprits and a decent, if small, selection of cask ales, and boasting a menu of local Lashford sausages and Moons pies.

While we had just missed the cut off time for food, a story that was becoming familiar, the bar was thankfully still open and it gave us the opportunity to partake in one of my favourite Black Country snack; a packet of 'Quarters', or Mr Porky's scratchings for the uninitiated.

These crispy lumps of pig fat and skin (maybe some bristles, if you're lucky) are one of my guiltiest pleasure, and sharing a bag, alongside a pint of Purity's Mad Goose Pale Ale was the perfect treat. Probably could have done with Gary Neville's dulcet tones blaring at a volume slightly lower than deafening from the screens playing Super Sunday, though.

First stop on Monday was to Hockley's Lord Clifden. Despite many trips to Brum, I'd never made it this far North into the Jewellery Quarter, but after looking through some Birmingham pub round-ups, good reviews of the Clifden gave me hope that it would be worth crossing town for.

While its smartly painted grey frontage looks fairly anonymous from the street, inside the Clifden it's a lot brighter. The pub advertises itself as a UAB (urban art bar), with the likes of Banksy, D*Face, Nick Walker and Army Lion colouring the walls. There is also famed garden area, complete with it's own separate bar, table football and ping pong tables and space for outdoor barbecues in the summer.

I had a pint of their house beer, the UAB Rotten Ale, complete with Johnny's sneering face on the pump clip. A decent drop. The Ewing had a floral and fruity pint of Matrix from the Salopian Brewery, both well kept and sufficiently thirst-slaking.

If you fancy a lager, the Lord Clifden also offers Estella Galicia, dispensed from it's brightly painted ceramic tap, and Budvar in regular, dark, half and half and wheat varieties.

The, not very great, pictures belies the greatness of our lunch; proper beer-absorbing, grub. Between us we chose the roast pork, apple sauce and stuffing bap, doused in gravy and served with crispy chips, and the home made fish finger sandwich, with tartare sauce and served on proper white doorstop bread.

It's been a while since I have had a fish finger sarnie, and this was a very good one. They also have a special link to Brum for me, as Stealth's house mates when she was at uni here used to whip up a round for lunch when ever I came to stay. Value bread, value fishsticks and lashings of mayo and ketchup; nothing tasted better to an impoverished student. 

Next was the Rose Villa Tavern in the heart of Hockley. An imposing pub, built in the 1920's and still retaining many of its original features, including an inglenook fireplace in the snug and smart cream and white tiling by Carter's of Poole (later Poole Pottery), which can also be seen in many London tube stations.

Since 2011 this has been a Bitters'n'Twisted venue (with six venues across town, including the Victoria) and as well as bringing the pbubback to it's former glory, they have ditched the alco-pops and lager to bring back a range of ales and craft brews, as well as, the ubiquitous and on trend, cocktail list and a diner style menu.

This turnned out to be the tipping point of our afternoon - when the Ewing and I, considering our evening dinner reservation at Purnell's Bistro, had to decide whether to go hard or go home. Of course, we went with the latter and I got stuck into the local Two Towers Brewery's Bhacker Ackhams, a thick and malty chocolate stout served in a dimpled pint pot.

We grabbed a spot at the back of the bar on a couple of high-backed church pews, which set the quasi-religious experience perfectly when combined with the late afternoon sun streaming through the ornate stained glass windows. A handsome and welcoming place to drink.

the Rose Villa Tavern on Urbanspoon

Last stop in the Jewellery Quarter was the Red Lion, sister pub of the Lorn Clifden. I had a Ruby Moby, from the Whale Ale brewery on the Oxfordshire/Warwickshire border; although, if it had been a few degrees warmer - even sat in front of roaring coal fire in the lounge - the Thatcher's frozen ' cider slushy' they keep on tap may have tempted.

The menu is very similar to the Clifden, ranging from the Brummie Breakfast - full works complete with steak and sauteed potatoes - through to Latchford's faggots, gravy and peas. At their Cow Club on Monday buying two steaks will also get you a bottle of wine gratis. 

As with the Lord Clifden, service was chirpy and welcoming and both seemed deservedly popular, even on a cold, post-Christmas Monday afternoon.

The Red Lion on Urbanspoon

With time for one last stop before our dinner at Purnell's Bistro, we returned to try our luck at the Old Joint Stock. This time they were open, and we had the opportunity to see the ornate interior from the inside, instead of trying to give the Ewing a shin up in front of the huge picture windows as we had the previous evening.

This grade two listed building was Designed by local architect Julius Alfred Chatwin (who also had a hand in Birmingham Cathedral, directly opposite) and was originally a library, before being converted into a bank. It has now been reincarnated as a Fullers pub, and the second floor hosts a custom designed, fully fitted, 80 seat theatre space staging a wide range of productions from Shakespeare to stand up comedy.

Refreshment came in the form of a pint of Frontier Lager for me and an Oyster stout for the Ewing. My first and only glass of the fizzy stuff on the whole trip, their new lager is, apparently, 'hand-crafted over 42 days combining the best of old world malts and 168 years of brewing knowledge' and was just the innocuous thirst-quencher I needed. 

A very nice place for a jar or two, plus gorgeous views both from the ornate interior and out across to Birmingham Cathedral. And, as a 'pie and ale house', you can be sure of some filling food, including a locally-influenced sausage, chickpea and balti pie

Our final stop on our last morning, after a visit to the Bullring market for Seville oranges and the world's most expensive papaya , was a visit to the Wellington on Bennett's Hill.

There's a huge choice of beers here, with the ones on tap (usually 16) displayed on screens around the pub which list their name; the brewery, including if they're local; and rating - ranging from from A for the lightest pale ale, A to E for heavy stouts and porters.

Back to the serious business of the beer and, coming full circle from our first stop at The Craven Arms, I had a pint of Black Country Ales. This time it was the Bradley's Finest Golden, a simple, hoppy and refreshing bitter with a lick of sweetness.

With such a range of ales, they encourage ordering by number listed against each beer - I guess this speeds things up at busy times - but we managed to somehow bypass the protocol and just pointed at the pump clips in the the regular way.

The Welly, and sister pub the Post Office Vaults, doesn't offer food, but they are more than happy for patrons to bring there own, and will even provide plates and cutlery. Fortuitously, our route took us past Temple Row, and the famous Habanero Van, selling burritos, salads, tacos and (alcohol free) margaritas to the lucky lunchers of Birmingham.

My light and refreshing choice of beverage turned out to be a good call, as the chicken tinga burrito with peach habernero sauce and jalepenos was nuclear in its heat levels. Again, showing symetry with the cobs at The Craven Arms, it was also one of the best things I ate on the trip. The Ewing, normally a avowed burrito doubter, was equally pleased with her de-constructed burrito box; all the ingredients, this time with pulled pork and guacomole, this time served minus the wrap. Certainly worth a try if your in the area, although only masochists need apply to try their under the counter extra hot sauce.

So, Brum; we came, we drank, we drank some more. So with (famously) more canals than Venice; a brand spanking new, and very impressive, library; the glittering Bullring; a Walk of Stars that boasts such luminaries as Jasper Carrot, Noddy Holder and Nigel Mansell; and, of course, some cracking pubs; there's no better time to visit for a jar (or two).