Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Brum Fun

I think I've had what writer's call 'block'. I ate and I ate, then I ate some more, but still the words wouldn't form (I did get a touch of indigestion, though). Slowly, as the idea of posting became more onerous, I begun to stop taking pictures of my lunch and went back to the same places to eat, so I wouldn't have to blog about them later. Was Pies and Fries finally stale and soggy?

Ultimately though, while it was nice to just sit back and smell the coffee (without trying to snap an arty picture) I kinda missed it; So grab the Rennies and let's get stuck in.

This particular adventure take us back to the Second City, or more precisely Snow Hill, the terminus of the Chiltern line. Strangely, in the fifteen or so years I've been coming to Brum, I'd never alighted here until earlier this year; now I've visited three times since March. While it misses the architectural majesty and convenience of Moor Street, it's in a much more interesting part of town. But more of that later.

First stop after ditching our bags was Brewdog, where, when faced with the comprehensive menu board above, I followed their sound recommendation and ordered a beer flight. After all, why have one beer when you can have four (not cheap though, a flight for both of us weighing in at twenty-two of your English pounds).

Pick of the bunch was Hymir, a brett fermented pale from Worcestershire's Urban Huntsman; the Ballast Point Dorado, a resinous imperial IPA; and the Dog D, a imperial stout with coffee and naga chillies from Brewdog. Whilst the latter two were belters ABV wise and we probably could have done with a breather, neither the Ewing or I could face the third of Brewdog's alcohol free Nanny State. Sometime's more is more.

Sufficiently lubricated we made our way to the inaugural Food Feast-ival at the, ominous-sounding, Coffin Works in the Jewellery Quarter. Just like it says on the tin, this was previously the site of the Newman Brothers 'producers of some of the world’s finest coffin furniture, including the fittings for the funerals of Joseph Chamberlain, Winston Churchill and the Queen Mother'.

Whilst they've recreated the ambiance of the firm's 60s heyday - complete with restored machinery and costumed guided tours - we were here for the food and drinks, all served up in the picturesque cobbled courtyard.

The disadvantage of being in such an enclosed space, as beautiful as it was, was that the smoke from the oven - mounted in an old Mini Cooper - at the Baked in Brick pizza stand meant that I ended up smelling like a teenager's kit bag after sitting around the campfire at Reading Festival (my mother would attest, that's not a good thing).

Things looked up when we actually swapped some dough for some dough, opting to share a calzone stuffed with beef shin ragu and mozzarella. All very tasty if a little pallid on top for my tastes. Any chance of getting bored waiting for our pizza to cook was also dispelled when we (for 'we' read my darling wife), befriended Tina and Rich, two very friendly locals who regaled us with stories of sewing clubs, library cuts and the local birds (of the ornithological variety), that can be spotted in the Jewellery Quarter.

Refreshments came in the form of a couple of poky cocktails from the the Little Gin Company - a Cotswold Dry with pink grapefruit for me and Monkey 47 Gin with tonic and orange for the Ewing. Gin and grapefruit's a very good thing and the measures were pleasingly generous making the 80's soul records they were spinning even more welcome.

Most mortals may have called it a night after the second cocktail, especially seeing as we were just around the corner from our hotel. But who can resist Birmingham's small, but perfectly formed, Chinatown; especially when pissed.

This time we headed for Peach Garden, an insalubrious little gaff with endearingly gruff service tucked off Ladywell Walk, where the main deal is the roast meat that you can see hanging in the steamy front window. Here it's served three ways; roast duck, char sui and roast pork (and a fourth on a Monday and Tuesday, when they crack out the suckling pig).

A plate of crispy, fatty, salty roast meat on a bed of fluffy white rice and a few chinese cabbage leaves thrown in to prevent scurvy, is one of my favourite things to eat. Add a good dose of fiery chilli oil and endless cups of jasmine tea (here served in smoked glass beakers, from a giant metal pot) and there is no better way to soak up a surfeit of gin.

The Ewing equally relished her bowl of won ton soup, a lagoon of porky parcels swimming in a rich meat stock augmented with Chinese veg and egg noodles. We also shared a side dish of crunchy water chestnut slices and crisp bamboo shoots, scooped up with obligatory handfuls of prawn crackers that, eaten in my usual haste, left me with those little scratches at the corner of my mouth the following morning that mean I always vow to give up prawn crackers, or to improve my table manners, but alas I do neither (that's a shame there would be more for me - TE)

Breakfast was a peerless selection of cheap cereal (who could resist faux Coco Pops with lashings of cold milk (me-TE)), watered down orange juice, endless cups of strong tea and piles of hot toast with butter and strawberry jam. It was glorious. Truly.

There was also a pretty decent view across the chimney tops from the breakfast room, just a shame most of it had been enveloped by a thick fog, leaving even the sparkly new Birmingham Library as merely a gentle golden glow. 'Oh the rain falls hard on a humdrum town, this town has dragged you down', as Steven Patrick might say.

Wet weather meant the perfect chance to visit Six Eight Kafe, sit back with a book (or, as as the modern way, stare at your smart phone screen for a bit) and watch the world wade down a sodden Temple Row. A Chemex for two, brewed with bright Costa Rican beans, and a slice of freshly baked chocolate mocha cake also hit the spot.

Next was a dose of (well-read) anarchy when we joined in briefly, with the Friends of Birmingham protest march in Victoria Square, followed by a dose of culture at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. There's a very good Pre-Raphaelite gallery if, like my wife, you're into that thing. And there's a very good gift shop if, like me, you're not. We also got to see the Floozie in the Jacuzzi, Brum's first lady. 

Final stop was a full circle to the Hen and Chickens, an unprepossessing pub in Hockley, just down the road from Snow Hill Station. Sky Sports, check. Pool table, check. Pints of fizzy piss, check. Loos with fag burns on the cistern, no loo roll and no locks, check. Best Indian food I've eaten for a long while, check....

Let's be honest, you're not going to come here for the ambiance, but get a cold Cobra in your hand and order a mixed grill (this is the 'small'), a piping hot dish piled high with crisp smoky kofte kebabs, chicken and fish pakora served on a bed of charred onions, and you can see why people make the trek.

The curries were equally strong; we sampled a sag paneer that was earthy and fragrant and a summery pumpkin curry with onion and tomato that was fresh and light. Hot rounds of peshwari and garlic naans proved the perfect way to scoop them from plate to mouth.

They'll even box up your leftovers (and you will have leftovers) that made me very happy when I saw them in the fridge the next morning. For our fellow commuters on the train home, possibly less so.

And so back to Snow Hill to begin our journey back South. Aptly, there's a statue of a bowler hatted commuter, brolly and briefcase in hand, to wave us off as we depart for another week at the grindstone. 

As the sun goes down on a broken town
And the fingers bleed in the factories
Come on out tonight, come and see the side
Of the ones you love and the ones in love
And you

Monday, 15 June 2015

Rex and Mariano

One of my happiest holiday memories on a family trip to Florida as a child wasn't meeting Mickey, or riding Space Mountain, or even being splashed by Shamu at Seaworld (these were the innocent days before Blackfish) but discovering Red Lobster for dinner. A basket of popcorn shrimp for me and a pound crab legs for my sister were guaranteed to keep us quiet while my parent's piled through pitchers of weak pilsner in the desperate attempt to get pissed. 

Older but not much wiser, I still love fruit de mer (with a few exceptions, notably a cherrystone clam chowder at Grand Central seafood bar. A memory that still provokes a gag reflex) although i'm not as keen on the price tag.

Cue soho's Rex and Mariano; owned by the same group as the bonkers Beast (where £27 will buy you a solitary king crab leg) and the upmarket Goodman steak chain, you may think their latest gaff's bound to break the bank. But, like their other 'budget' option, the still peerless Burger and Lobster, this is seafood for skinflints, all served up in snazzy surroundings (the alliteration game's strong today).

Part of the cost cutting comes with iPad's instead of waiters - although they still need to employ real humans to tell you how to work the iPad's, and then come over to help you when they go wrong... Overall it was a nice touch, meaning you could pace the arrival of dishes to suit you. It also keeps the service charge at just 5%. One negative of electronic ordering meant we did quickly run out of room on the table, but that was possibly as much down to our greed).

Generous amounts of decent bread were soon ordered. The crispy ciabatta, with its oily crust stuck through with shards of garlic and rosemary, being my favourite, although the nutty wholemeal went better with the tuna pate that was served alongside. The pate itself was reminiscent of the little brightly coloured tins of fish paste I used to eat on Portuguese holidays as a child, and as such I can think of no higher praise for it.

Second out out were these little yellow fin tuna stuffed olives. I first tried these in Le Marche, with a view of the Appenines and a cold glass of Campari in hand, so was fairly confident this version would be a a mere interlude before bigger and better things. Thankfully, like many things, I was wrong (OMG, finally you admit this - TE). The only downside being the narrowly avoided third degree burns to my soft palate, the little nuggets being both moreish and incendiary when fresh out the fryer; a very dangerous combo.

From their crudo section we chose a summery seabass carpaccio with olive oil, tomato and parsley; an easygoing combo of fresh flavours that was favourite of the Ewing's, if a touch wan for my jaded taste buds.

Livelier was poky tuna tartare with chilli and avocado and sesame oil, an ingredient that can be Marmite like (controversially I have no real opinion about the yeast spread itself, other than it's far inferior to Bovril), but here applied with a restraint that gave the dish a little smoky zing. 

One of the most Instagrammed plates on my feed this year (still way behind a certain soy egg yolk on blood cake) is this dish of red prawns. Here you can have them fried or, as we did,  raw with nothing but a lick of olive oil, lemon and salt.  As Jay Rayner points out in his Guardian review of the gaff: 'if your companion does not start sucking at the heads, send them politely on their way. They are not greedy enough, and will prove unsatisfying company.' The Ewing would certainly pass muster. (compliment accepted! -TE)

A duo of crab cakes, at two for twelve quid, were peerless. Often spud heavy and bland these were dense little pucks of hundred percent Cornish crustacean, the white meat bound with just a little mayo before frying.

A bowl of rustling courgette fries and accompanying garlic aioli were unnecessary but addictive and were quickly dispatched alongside a glass of crisp picopul from a decent, if not nearly as good value as the grub, wine list.

While I'm not sure it can ever match the peerless joy of putting a plate of jumbo coconut shrimp with pina colada sauce in front of an excitable eight year old who's still slightly delirious from queuing up to ride roller coasters in the heat of the Floridian sun all day, Rex and Mariano still bought a big ol' smile to my face. And not too much pain to my wallet.

Since Tilly Gingerbread, my little strawberry blonde niece, was born I seem to see gingerbread related things everywhere I look (oh, oh, oh, Baader Meinhof, as the 'saviour of pop' circa 1993, Luke Haines would say). It was no different as we left the restaurant and headed South towards Stealth's, a route that fortuitously took us past Paul A Young's Soho shop. After nipping in 'for a quick look', how could I resist buying a brace of the gingerbread shortbread with ginger caramel and spiked with crystallized ginger. Beautiful to look at and very sweet but with a little fiery kick, just like their namesake.

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

Canterbury Pig Tales

After spending three entertaining and educational (although not especially productive) years in this little corner of Kent, I relish coming back to dear Canters. Especially as now it's without the gnawing fear of missing yet another essay deadline and I don't have to subsist on a diet of 'Spoons beer and a burger - if you think it's cheap now it was a bargainous £2.99 back in the day - and discount buckets of Cherry Veba (RIP, the ultimate alcopop).

With the lack of finances during that time, it's probably a good thing that The Foundry Brewpub was a dim and distant dream. It also shows how far British brewing has come. A decade ago (ok, fifteen years...) Britain's oldest brewers, Faversham's Shepherd Neame, reigned supreme on this patch. Now you can sup Canterbury Lager, Stout and Wheat beers, amongst many others including a brew made with New Zealand hops and a chilli and chocolate Aztec stout, all brewed within the city limits.

The aforementioned lager and nitro stout we tried were good, although the service, while friendly, was pretty confused when we tried to order. A shame, as I was tempted to go back and grab a few bottles of the Foundry Red Rye for takeout, but didn't have the strength to navigate the assorted melee by the bar trying to pay for their lunch.

To be fair most of my waning enthusiasm for the usual English passion for standing in line was because I needed some lunch myself. While a homemade pie platter, a ploughmans or a plate of honey beer braised ribs - as can all to be found on the Foundry's menu - sounded tempting, I knew where we were heading next; to Sun Street, tucked away by the cathedral, home of Pork and Co.

This little takeaway sandwich shop, with a few stools in the window if you want to eat in, is a veritable shrine to the swine. Something that's attested before you even step inside with the trough of shredded pork, complete with head, displayed proudly in the window. 

As well as their signature 14 hour pulled pork in brioche buns, they also offer scotch eggs, sausage rolls, macaroni cheese and salt beef in homemade seeded bagels. Pretty much all the major food groups covered and fibre's overrated anyway (if you're not a salad dodger you can get your choice of porky goodness in a box with greens instead of with bread, but why not live fast and die with diabetes and an impacted colon).

They say a picture tells a thousand words and there's not much more I can add to this one. It was as great as it looked; probably better. If large brewery conglomerates made sandwiches it wouldn't be as good as this one.

Each bun comes with the choice of one sauce and a topping (although you can pimp your roll with extras until its structural integrity collapses). The very chipper guy serving us recommended the apple butter and the chilli slaw, so the Ewing picked the former and I the latter. I also chose the apple sauce and finished it all off with crackling, because who wouldn't finish it with crackling. The Ewing's was adorned with black pud alongside the apple butter (not dairy related but a kind of concentrated fruit spread, and a cinch to make yourself - TE) and more crispy pig skin.

Afterwards a brisk constitutional around the city was in order before I made my first visit - to my eternal shame as I walked past it most days for a year - to St Dunstans church. As well as meeting a charming gentleman - who told us he came here every time he was in Canterbury for solace and a sense of wellbeing - and an Eastern European lady who appeared and began playing a captivating unplanned recital at the piano, it is also the final resting place of Thomas More's head.

Afterwards we walked down to the Westgate gardens - via my old house where I reminisced about the days when my housemate Becky got stuck on the flat roof and had to be rescued by the neighbours, drunken space hopper races down the road (I bet the neighbours wish they hadn't been so helpful) and the delights of ice forming inside the windows and chilblains in winter. 

The gardens are lovely; you can walk along the river Stour, take a punt on a punt and, at this time of year, see the Garden of England in full bloom. It's worth a trip just to see the striking oriental plane tree, purportedly over two hundred years old, with its fascinatingly gnarly and bulbous trunk.

Under the shade of the very same tree we stopped to enjoy an impromptu teatime snack, scarfing down a Plump Pilgrim, the south's shameless rip off of Yorkshire stalwart Betty's, Fat Rascal. This, dare I say it and despite its lack of almond teeth and only having one cherry eye, was even better.

Final stop of the day was at the original Bottle Shop - whose bigger brother can be found at the end of the Bermonsdsey Beer Mile - a bijou treasure trove of ales housed in the Goods Shed by Canterbury West station. Whilst local brews are not their forte (we picked up some Mikkller cans and a couple of Tempest and Cloudwater bottles), they did have the Spratwaffler Pale Ale, from Deal, as their beer of the week. A decent recommendation for some light, low ABV drinking that, alongside a bag of Pork and Co's homemade scratchings, made me happy as a pig in the proverbial.