Saturday, 28 February 2015

Naan and Grandad @ Mr Chilly

Throughout life I've so far mostly ignored the many well intentioned warnings about peaking too early; hence why I was always a sprinter not a cross-country-er (that, and a complete lack of endurance and stamina). But I do fear that giving my best joke up to the title of this post can mean only an anticlimax. The one secret weapon I do have, however, is Grandad. And like babies and fluffy kittens, everyone loves old people; unless they are ahead of you, in the queue at the supermarket, on your lunch break....

At the ripe old age of 88 Grandad shows little signs of losing his sense of humour and spirit of adventure, meaning he was the ideal person to accompany us to North Harrow's Mr Chilly for a Saturday night curry. Possibly a little too enthusiastic as he and the Ewing ploughed their way through the plate of poppadoms like hungry locusts as I was distracted with ordering the food and snapping a few (pretty bad) pics on my phone.

Sadly he didn't make any inroads on my drink which was advertised as 'Fresh Passion' but didn't float my boat, having the strange sweet and salty flavour that reminded me of the electrolyte drinks you get given when ill (or, more likely, hungover).

Dishes feature fairly typical Pakistani fare - grilled lamb chops, kebabs and 'turbo' wings to start with grilled paneer, pakoras and mogo chips for the veggies, followed by the familiar role call of breads, rice and curries, although ingredients such methi (fenugreek leaves), burjee (scrambled eggs), haleem (wheat, meat and lentil stew), and paya (braised feet) give things a both a more homely and more exotic twist compared the Bombay Palace identikits found on most high streets.

We shared a selection of mains including a beautifully tender and fragrant spring lamb spiked with fresh ginger, a decent bhindi bhaji (fast becoming my favourite vegetable side dish) and a, slightly dry, jeera chicken with huge amonts of smoky roasted cumin seeds. Vegetable biryani appeared in what looked like a glass butter dish, but was no worse for that while garlic naans, like the spicy poppadoms, seemed to be very popular across the table, although the crusts I managed to snaffle were very good.

Standout was probably the prawn karahi, which featured a subtle onion and tomato based sauce with a decent lick of coriander and garlic in the background that came studded with about a dozen impossibly large and sweet crustaceans.

There's a definite utilitarian vibe about the place; sauces - one white and one red - come in squeezy bottles, the plates look like something from you Nan's wedding service and the decor is fairly sparse (one of the few pictures actually fell off the wall while we were there), but it has an endearing charm and friendly staff who all dutifully laughed at Grandad's jokes. The food was freshly prepared and with enough distinctive spicing to make each dish stand out; and at £10 a head for a huge amount of food (including a couple of the most expensive dishes on the menu) the bill was pleasingly small.

Of course, despite my not being very good at building to a climax, there always has to be a little anticipation and this time I really have saved the best until last. My two favourites, and that elusive garlic naan.

Saturday, 21 February 2015

London Claw Tour

It’s been a while since I went on one of my half-cocked ‘challenges’ - well at least since I attempted to eat crab and ice cream (separately, that would be too much of a challenge even for me) at least once a day for our entire Devonshire holiday, which resulted in leaving even crustacean champion the Ewing going green behind the gills – but a recent spate of lobster purveyors springing up in the Capital presented too good an opportunity not to check at least some of them out. All in the name of vital research, obviously.

One of my favourite foodie memories - suffice to say already mentioned here and so I won’t recant it in too much detail - was going to New England as a teenager and finding that McDonalds sold a seasonal, and pretty good, lobster roll. This was also the same holiday where I casually remarked that our dinner (live lobster from the market) had escaped the confines of the bucket they were being stored in and were making their way across the sundeck.

Sadly, my life was pretty lobster-less for a long while after that. There was lots of crab, plenty of prawns and a fair few langoustines. But, save for the odd special treat, such as this great meal we shared with my Aunt and Uncle on their anniversary in Kenya, lobster remained very much the preserve of high days and holidays.

Fast forward a decade or so and it seems this once prized catch is becoming as ubiquitous as the Sunday roast or chicken tikka masala. With Aldi, Lidl and the like selling frozen specimens for a fiver and surf and turf on the chalkboard of every other pub you pass, but can we really have too much of a good thing? 

With a at least three restaurants focusing on lobster opening in the last couple of months in London, like a low rent Anne Robinson, but with the ability to still move my eyebrows independently,  I braved the claw challenge to find out for myself.

The first stop was Lobster Kitchen - actually, it was originally supposed to be Fraq’s, but their website didn’t specify an opening time and the doors weren’t open when I arrived at a quarter to twelve. Not to be defeated I walked the ten minutes from Goodge Street to the top of Tottenham Court road, followed by another ten minutes of hopelessly pacing about trying to actually find the place.

I’m guessing the idea is similar to Burger Shack in le Meridien, or any of the other famous ‘secret’ concessions that everybody knows about. Of course the big difference being everybody does know about them, while I remained clueless about the exact whereabouts, as well as pitifully hungover as I limped around the block inwardly sobbing to myself.

Eventually (and pretty much nobody who knows me will believe this part) I went into the lobby of the St Giles Hotel and asked. Here I was directed by a porter at reception, through a maze of corridors that lead to a door with a hastily sellotaped sign (the first I had seen for Lobster Kitchen) that appeared to lead to the cleaner’s cupboard or some other unpromising dead end. Thankfully it led to Lobster Kitchen, although once through it, the staff looked as surprised as I was that I had actually found it. If you’re looking for it from Great Russell Street then take the left hand door next to the VQ entrance, above, which has a small Lobster Kitchen decal on the glass.

The menu is confusingly sprawling, especially for such a tiny kitchen, and is chalked up all around the serving hatch, making it pretty much impossible to read as you stand at the till - thankfully I saw a pyramid of root beer  twinkling alluringly in front of me, so that was the drinks sorted. To eat was lobster, obviously, and I chose a king roll with garlic butter, they also offer ‘skinny’ (with olive oil) or ‘club’ (without a description).

The roll itself was small-ish but, as they say, perfectly formed, with nothing but the lobster, a touch of garlic, and butter. So, so much butter. Added to the sweet and buttery brioche (with just the right amount of toasting), I became slightly overwhelmed by the amount of dairy, especially due to my sensitive (and self-inflicted) state, and even found myself reluctantly leaving a few butter-soaked pieces of bun at the end.

I’m conflicted over whether this was a problem or not. Certainly those who don’t care much for butter would think so, but, when it comes to lobster butter is a natural bedfellow and I think, overall, it would be more of a crime to have been left with a dry bun. The garlic could certainly have been more prominent, but the lobster was cooked well enough and there was a decent meat to bread ratio.

Lobster Kitchen on Urbanspoon

Fraq’s has a much smaller menu. There’s a Boston Roll, a hot prawn and avocado (roll?) and a calamari club (sandwich? roll?). There’s also regular fries, courgette fries and, slightly randomly, chocolate cake. I ordered the Boston Roll (£15) with a, Christmas themed (yes, I told you this blog post had been waylaid) Diet Coke.

Sadly no root beer was available, and I was also told no alcohol was available on my visit either ( a small mercy, retrospectively), despite there being a fridge full of regular beer and a lemon sorbet vodka slushie machine churning on the counter.

Inside the decor is whitewashed New England beach shack. There was also a big staff to customer ratio, which combined with a Monday morning Motown soundtrack and the bright lights made my mood feel less chilled out on the sand and more slightly sea sick.

The roll was, thankfully, as hefty as its price tag, with the large brioche bun being served stuffed with a cold, mayo-based lobster salad. While the pieces of lobster were smaller than the Lobster Kitchen, there was a decent amount of meat in there. I also, for personal preference, rather liked the shredded iceberg lettuce, crisp chopped celery and creamy mayo, but if you prefer the simplicity of hot, buttery lobster roll then you’re out of luck.

At nearly twenty quid, with a can of drink, for something that took me less than half an hour to order and eat (the less gluttonous may want to add on fifteen minutes) this is fast food with a pretty hefty price tag. The limited menu - usually a favourable selling point with ventures like these - also may seem a little too restricted with only one type (and size) of lobster roll. While all I had to do is crawl on the train back home after I had finished eating, good luck to anyone going back to the office after one of these, as a crustacean coma is probably not too far behind.

Fraq's Lobster Shack on Urbanspoon
I finally made it to Smack Deli, from the guys behind Burger and Lobster and the last stop on the mini trawl (see what I did there), on Valentine’s Day. Appropriately, this time the Ewing was in tow - surely nothing says romance better than fishy breath and greasy fingers? Here they offer four types of roll alongside whole lobsters, lobster bisque; and, the ubiquitous, courgette fries. 

I was feeling particularly kindly and so I let my darling wife select the flavour she wanted, the Seven Samurai, first. Obviously this was the one I also wanted. Obviously, I could have also had this, but that irritating internal voice piped up saying ‘let’s have something different and share’, knowing full well this wouldn’t actually happen and knowing full well mine wouldn't be as nice.

Sadly, I was right; my roll - the Californian with lettuce, tomato and cucumber (avocado was missing in action) - was decent once I had removed the salad garnish but the Ewing's was far more interesting, the crisp shredded cabbage and sprinkle of Japanese chilli pepper being a particularly good call. The bun was probably the best in class of the ones that I tried, but the lobster underneath was a little lacking, both in flavour and volume.

The courgette fries, however were fantastic. Something that can be attested by the fact that when I had to duck out to speak to my aunt on the phone, the Ewing scoffed most of them. And tried to, unsuccessfully, hide the evidence.

Smack Lobster on Urbanspoon

Of course, the gold standard of lobster roll remains for many those served at trailblazers Burger and Lobster. Their rolls are the kind I crave; cold chunks of poached lobster meat bound lightly in mayo with a little bit of lettuce and a lot of butter in the brioche. While I haven’t had one for a while, it’s always hard to look past the grilled lobster with melted butter on the few times I have visited, so it's got to be worth taking a greedy friend and adding an extra roll to your order for sharing. Luckily I have greedy friends, and here are two of my favourites chowing down on the aforementioned roll on my hen do. Perfect simplicity, in more ways than one.

Burger & Lobster on Urbanspoon

Friday, 13 February 2015

Fryday Night

Having a firmly London-centric lineage (save for a Norn Iron Grandmother and, as I have recently discovered, a Pie Eater as a paternal Great-Grandfather) you're probably thinking I spent most my childhood evenings eating jellied eels whilst singing a few Chas and Dave songs around the old Joanna (I've never thought that - TE). Sadly, after I moved to the bucolic Chiltern Hills, most nights were about eating my greens followed by Neighbours and trying to avoid my physics homework (I did, briefly and badly, learn the piano, but it was all Phil Collins (heaven help us - TE) and the Beatles, not the Cockney classics).

People often rue the loss of the real London, but it still exists if you look hard enough and it's very essence, hanging in the air like chip fat, can be found through the doors of Masters Super Fish on the Waterloo Road. Beloved of cabbies, locals and tourist alike, the Formica tables, fish straight from Billingsgate and fogged up windows make you feel like you've been transplanted straight out of an Orwell novel.

I'm not sure you would have got a saucerful of shrimps in Orwell's time - although he does talk of the bigger cousins, Dublin Bay prawns, in his Defence of English Cooking. Here they are served gratis while you wait, alongside a basket of baguette and butter. Cue some noisy head-sucking from the Ewing.

Everything was perfect; a thick tranche of cod, served skin on (opposed to the skinless Northerners) was flaky and meaty (which still always seems a strange descriptor for fish); the batter at turns perfectly crisp and soggy and the mountains of fried potatoes peerless.

They also provide generous supplies of ketchup and tartare sauce - heaven for a condiment fiend like me - before bringing silver boats with sliced wallies and pickled onions to your table and asking how many you want with your dinner. That's right, endless pickles are provided table side; surely the cue to get yer selves down to queue for a fishy helping of forgotten London.

Masters Super Fish on Urbanspoon
Of course man can’t live on cups of tea alone (although the English may try), so it was an auspicious omen that Bermondsey’s Bottle Shop were hosting the first night of their new Waterloo pop up, held at Love and Scandal coffee shop on Lower Marsh. 

Their Thursday/Friday night shenanigans started with four keg offerings, a cheeky little can and bottle list (also available to takeaway) and crisps sandwiches for a quid. It’s as if they had read my mind.

I started the weekend off with a Weird Beard Citra Ninja Pilsner (AKA Faceless Spreadsheet Ninja), a single hopped German pils style beer that’s clean and sweet and refreshing  but with a little kick at the end -from dry hopping with yet more Citra - to keep you on your toes; perfect Friday night thirst-slaking.

The Ewing passed up the chance to try the Punchline, a Chipotle Porter from Huddersfield's Magic Rock, plumping instead for the Ominpollo (from Sweden, and one of the only beverages imbibed over the weekend that was brewed outside the Big Smoke) Saison. This was a juicy, funky brew that the Ewing described as 'FRESH' (the caps are hers).

Crisp butties and a second round were passed up as Stealth had called to announce she was back in E&C and awaiting our arrival. As we couldn't arrive without a present (well, I could have done…) a few cans of Evil Twin Brewing’s Hipster Ale (brewed at Two Roads Brewing Co) from their takeaway fridge seemed most appropriate for the hippest girl in SE17.

Of course it wasn’t all about massive hops and a jet of CO2.  A nice dimpled pint pot of Sambrooks Wandle on cask – a classic English pale ale named after the Thames tributary that runs past the brewery - whilst snuggled up at the back of our favoured haunt, the Old Red Lion in Walworth, bookmarked  a pleasingly gentle end to a frenetic, Capital-centric weekend.

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Greed in the Temple (sung to the tune of the Prince song)

As you may now have gathered the last few weeks has seen Grandad becoming ever more lithe and sprightly, as he starts to zip about again after his recent broken hip, whilst we become ever poorer and fatter as we eat our way around Middlesex on route to visiting him.

On this occasion I decided it would be nice to try and fit in a dose of culture before lunch, and where better than the magnificent Neasden Temple, a beautiful burst of the exotic in humdrum North London.

The temple - or Shri Swaminarayan Mandir, to give it its full name - was, at the time of building, the largest ever constructed outside India. Constructed by Bochasanwasi Shri Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha (or, the more manageable, BAPS) - a major organization within the Swaminarayan sect of Hinduism - the majestic structure is made of 2,828 tonnes of Bulgarian limestone and 2,000 tonnes of Italian marble, which was first shipped to India to be carved by a team of 1,526 sculptors. The foundations saw the biggest ever concrete pour on these shores when 4,500 tons was put down in 24 hours to create a foundation 6 ft thick. The temple cost over £12 million to build and was opened in 1995.

History lesson over, it’s well worth having a look around the inside of the building, especially to see the interior of the shrine which is constructed mainly from hand-carved Italian Carrara marble and Bulgarian limestone and is quite a sight to behold.

On our visit the mandir was also heated to a temperature not too dissimilar to the surface of the sun. This fact, coupled with the fact you have to remove your shoes on entry to the complex and the floors are covered with the fluffiest carpets I have ever walked upon, sent my poor toes in to some sort of swollen sausage like discomfort. For all strange souls who, like me, find even the idea of walking barefoot brings you out in a cold sweat, you can appreciate how this beautiful heaven quickly became a clammy kind of hell (I missed the whole of the largest wooden temple in Kyoto due to my aversion to the mix of tatami matting and stockinged feet. *shudder* - (Like chalk to her cheese, I can't wait to release my monster munch style trotters and experience these surfaces sans socks! - TE). 

The Ewing was in far less a hurry to leave, so whilst she looked at a roster of famous politicians who have visited the temple – most recently David and Sam Cam, but also Blair, Brown, Clegg and Kennedy, this is obviously a MP hot spot – before going to the shop to buy ‘special’ flax seed ‘for my porridge’, (and they gave me a free pocket calendar - TE) I hobbled back to my shoes and scarpered to examine the outside a little more closely.

After we had reconvened in the car park we made our way to the squat building, rather forlorn in contrast to the temple, which houses the Shayona Restaurant, dessert parlour and shop. Thankfully the inside is a little jazzier, although the cuisine offered in the restaurant is simple, straightforward vegetarian fare.  Not just that but, being based on Satvic principles, the food offered here is prepared with no garlic and no onions.

Now I know, allegedly, food can taste good without liberal amounts of these stinky staples (and chilli sauce, of course) but why would you want to risk it. But, even after years of slowly destroying my taste buds by drinking Tabasco straight out the bottle and garlic pickle by the spoonful I completely forgot about the absence of alliums until I was back home again and went to have another look at their website.

Not only was the food top notch but they also have an all you can eat buffet at lunchtimes, for the bargain price of £7.99, including a drink. Fear not though, this is no Pizza Hut grease fest (although I do miss those days of being able to eat a cartwheel of deep pan pepperoni pizza, topped with garlic bread and chased down with a ‘healthy’ side of tinned sweetcorn slathered in blue cheese dressing), instead you can stuff yourself on a small array of freshly cooked curries and breads, supplemented by fresh pickles and salads.

Top picks were the cubes of mustardy spiced potato, an earthy kidney bean curry and a rich, oily chilli paneer. They also have a deft hand with the fryer too; the kachories - spiced mushy peas stuffed inside a pastry shell - and baskets of freshly cooked puri breads, which are bought fresh to your table, both being particularly good.

Those with a sweet tooth will probably appreciate their, very fine, mango lassi and the dishes of Shrikhand, a sweetened strained yogurt with cardamom and saffron. Not to my tastes, but the Ewing more than ably made up for my lack of interest.

I was, however, unable to resist the lure of the Indian sweetmeats that line the glass counters of the dessert parlour - there's also a small selection of savoury morsels and a freezer filled with swirls of brightly coloured Italian gelato swirled with fruit syrups and studded with biscuits and nuts. 

Normally I find burfi, halwa and the like - no matter how beautiful they look - too sugary, too rich, too 'cheesy' tasting to be enjoyable. Indeed the first time I tried it, from a gaudy sweet shop on Brick Lane, ended in me depositing each, half-masticated, piece into every bin on the way to Whitechapel.

Thankfully these, just like the temple, were as fabulous on the inside as their silver leaf and pistachio adorned exteriors suggested. The lurid marzipan fruit type things didn't really do it for me, but the pistachio barfi, the sticky square of compressed date and nuts and, my favourite, the yellow golf ball-like chickpea flour ladoo, were a beautiful way towards type two diabetes.

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Hospital Food

Recent research has suggested that, far from being a sign of being stuck in the past, nostalgia can actually be good for you. Of course, we’re not talking about the mawkish and sentimental clinging on to the ‘good old days’, but more the ability to use positive memories to confront fears of our own mortality. Deep stuff.

Recently I was able to put this theory into practice when visiting dear old Grandad, who was still in Northwick Park hospital after a fall. Arriving straight from work and feeling pretty ravenous we headed straight to the canteen. And, even more joyfully, they had crumble and custard on the menu.

Everything about NHS custard screams nostalgia to anyone that ever went to school in the UK. At once managing to be  gloopy, thick, lumpy and watery; like a kind of fifth matter that exists like a rogue plasma in a state somewhere between liquid and solid. Whist some (most) people may baulk at the thought, to me it was some sort of culinary nirvana – although it should be noted that at my first parent’s evening my Mum and Dad were amused to hear a glowing report from my teacher on my burgeoning appetite. My particular lunchtime favourites being plum cake (and, of course, custard) and cheese ‘pie’ (nothing like a pie).

Underneath this liquid with a life of its own was a particularly fine apricot crumble. Sweet and sour fruit with an oaty rubble on top that still remained mysteriously crisp despite the torrents of yellow gunge. Just £1.21 for the custard and 33p extra for the magnificent custard. Add in a plate of Cajun chicken and some of the finest chips I have had for a while (although it felt kind of counter intuitive to be eating them in a hospital) and that’s institutionalised cuisine at its finest.

Sadly our culinary trip down memory lane was thwarted when Grandad was soon transferred to Central Middlesex hospital; although of course much better for him. CMH is a much spiffier gaff, but their canteen had sadly closed before we arrived in the evening. Thankfully Beirut Nights @cafe, restaurant and shisha lounge' is to be found adjoining the hospital entrance at the corner of Abbey Road, and provided the perfect pit stop before visiting hours.

Starting our visit by being seated in the restaurant, we were soon relegated to the outdoor shisha lounge as, curiously, the pitta wraps we had chosen - alongside  a couple of mezze dishes to start - aren’t served inside. This turned out to be no bad thing; the shisha lounge was lovely and warm due to a plethora of heaters that kept the temperature raised (along with their energy bills). There was also some attention diverting cricket which pleased me, the Ewing less so.

The food was very good. Our mezze of Houmous Kawarma - the familiar chickpea and tahini dip, topped with sizzling cubes of grilled lamb and pine nuts - was exemplary. The tabouleh was equally good -a thicket of freshly chopped parsley, interspersed with just enough bulgar wheat and topped with diced tomatoes and a good squeeze of lemon juice.

These were followed by a chicken and salad schwarma wrap, enlivened by a healthy dose of fiery chilli chutney and garlic sauce (the doctors would be pleased that we were thinking of our hearts, even if our colleagues the next day disagreed) and a soujouk wrap. The soujouk being spicy little homemade beef sausages -shaped rather like the ones that come in tins with beans, but far more reputable. Delicious but rather tricky to stop the odd stray escaping from the confines of their pitta blanket, though.

All the custard obviously had the right effect on Grandad, as a couple of weeks later he was being discharged back home, shiny new Zimmer frame in tow. After a comical scenario on the first evening (with the joy of hindsight) when the district nurses didn’t turn up, I stepped in to the breach as chief cook and bottle washer whilst the Ewing battled valiantly with a medicine chart ‘for the fridge’ (it would have papered the whole kitchen) and dispensed his pills and potions. At least we now know why Grandad rattles.

After our evening’s entertainment settling him back home there was no better place for some much needed soul soothing than the nearby B&K Salt Beef Bar in Hatch End. I’ve written about this place before, but with Jewish deli food this good it bears repeating.

First up was a bowl of good old chicken soup. Here you can have it with lokshen (noodles) kneidlach (Matzo balls), or kreplach (turkey and garlic ‘ravioli’). We both chose a mix of balls and noodles, served with a plate of their caraway spiked rye bread to mop up every last drop.
Of course this esteemed dish is not called Jewish penicillin for nothing, and nothing seemed quite so welcome when it was placed in front of us.

Next up was the main draw, mountains of hand carved salt beef sandwiched between the aforementioned rye bread. Cured brisket - along with bacon and ketchup on a Sunday morning and turkey post-Christmas - remains one of my very favourite sarnie fillings. Here the meat has just enough wobbly fat at its edges (ask for it lean if you prefer) to keep things lubricated and is served with an optional schmear of poky yellow mustard and a crunchy sweet and sour dill pickle.
Latkes, crunchy little discs of deep fried of potato and onion, are a must order, even if we did end up taking most of ours home for later.

I couldn't resist a homemade desert to go, in this case lokshen pud, a homemade sweet noodle pudding made with orange juice and raisins. Yes, it sounds pretty grim, no, it really isn’t - the overall effect being something rather like a baked bread pudding, with its mixture of crunchy topping and comforting starchiness and sweet fruit underneath.

The Ewing had a giant doorstop of sticky chocolate cake - what else? - which, despite its gargantuan size, I still missed snaffling a picture of. Reports are that it was comforting and sweet, which rather perfectly describes my own little Florence Nightingale herself. Well, at least until I hear of a stubborn and forgetful kind of cake…

B&K Salt Beef Bar on Urbanspoon