Thursday, 25 February 2016

Moo and Modernism too

I usually find family occasions fraught with difficulty. Not, as you may think, because I don't like my my relatives - in fact, quite the contrary, I love spending time with them - but more the difficulty in finding things that are going to please everyone, with ages ranging from six months to sixty something, especially when it comes to eating. 

A case in point came recently when I found everyone would be descending on East London for a mini reunion. My first thoughts, after the excitement of seeing everyone, of course - turned to Tayyabs lamb chops, Beigel bake's hand carved salt beef and Orange Buffalo's spicy wings. Well, at least until I heard my cousin - a former globetrotter who now has two young children under five - suggesting to my aunt 'chain restaurants are good, all children like chips'.

He's right of course, chains can be great and there's plenty of examples where I'd be more than happy to eat fried potatoes with the young ones (sadly not me anymore). So when my aunt sent me the details to our reservation at Moo Cantina - a mini chain with a branch on Brick Lane and a meat-centric menu - for our family lunch, the steaks were high (boom, boom).

Things got off to a good start with a large bottle of Quilmes, a popular (a pretty much the only) Argentinian beer. As with a few weeks ago, when I was chugging cans of PBR along side my fried chicken, it's  sweet, malty beer that doesn't have much going for it on its own, but when served cold slips down deceptively well alongside grilled meats and salty foods.

The sharing starter board, given an atmospherically fuzzy glow through my grease-speckled camera phone lens - was a tasty and interesting assortment of Argentinian chorizo sausage with roasted peppers and onion, lightly battered fingers of fried squid with garlicky mayo, hunks of baguette with a punchy chimichurri sauce and disc that resembled a pancake, but was comprised of gooey, grilled provolone cheese.

It was nice to see chancho, a hunk of grilled pork collar, on the menu, and it didn't disappoint. Served simply with a sauce criolla - a fresh onion, pepper and tomato salsa - a rocket salad, and a side of excellent sweet potato fries, and all with change from a tenner.

We also sampled couple of incarnations of the eponymous 'free range beef sourced from lush grass fed cattle'. Firstly a flank steak - 200g, grilled and served with a salad and fries for £12 at lunchtime, which proved a well-flavoured strip of meat, served with charred edges and a nicely pink centre. There was also the Lomito Porteno a rib eye sandwich with roasted peppers and provolone cheese advertised on the menu as 'one of the top ten sandwiches in the UK'. While I'm not sure who made the pronouncement, I'm pretty sure my cousin Will was in agreement.

While tempted by the smoke sausage platter, served with the curious addition of guacamole, in the end the Ewing attempted to compensate from the previous night's excess with the 'seasonal' salad. Thankfully chunks of avocado meant she didn't miss out on her vitamin E, alongside flame grilled peppers and fresh peppers, and crisp chicken strips, all nestled on a bed of well-dressed leaves (insert joke about East London fashion here). 

The younger contingent were also well catered for with a very good grilled chicken sandwich, stuffed with mozzarella and tomato; Moo burgers and chips; and a big platter of nachos to share. We also shared some interesting sides including the Salad Olivier, a kind of ensalada russa of diced boiled potato, carrot and peas, dressed with mayo; and a Revuelto Gramajo, a dish of scrambled eggs with 'onion, ham, peas and fries'.

Who could resist the lure of a desert named Sweet Tony, a toffee and chocolate mousse with cream and strawberries. Certainly not the Ewing, who enjoyed it, although not as much as my Uncle enjoyed his carajillo (coffee with cognac, or in his case, amaretto) the beloved beverage of Spanish bin men, served here in wine glasses and a steal at only four pounds.

From being somewhere central, where we could all get together and eat chips and drink wine, Moo ended up exceeding all our expectations. While the food was decent, and decently priced, where they really impressed was with the charming service. From stowing our assorted luggage, to re-configuring the furniture, to expertly dividing sandwiches to stop pre-teenage squabbles, and being delightful with baby Louis, nothing was too much trouble.

Moo Cantina Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

While the rest of the family rolled, contentedly, back towards Stoke Newington, we took the opportunity to chalk off stop three of the Brutal Tour with a visit to One Moorgate Place, home of Institute of Chartered Accountants' Hall. More accurately we where here to see William Whitfield's 60's extension, constructed in a Modernist style that's quite at odds with the Victorian neo-Baroque styling of the original building.

When I was growing up our neighbours, who lived directly opposite, decided to paint the front of their garage with large colourful blocks that resembled a Mondrian painting. Which might have looked pretty incongruous on a warehouse door in backstreet in Whitechapel, but rather less so when attached to a house in leafy Buckinghamshire.

While I’m not sure their impressionist recreation was quite to my parent’s more modest (not modernist) tastes, I was rather a fan of the bold colours that brightened up my dreary provincial view; which is exactly how I felt when I saw the Brutalist extension to the Hall. The incongruousness of the addition is, for me, the epitome of what makes the juxtaposition of London’s architecture – this time as part of the very same building - so thrilling. 

You can read more about the whole building here. I'm just waiting for the currant refurbishment works to take place so I can go for lunch at One Moorgate Place, the restaurant found in the basement of the hall. I wonder if they serve chips...

Friday, 12 February 2016

More Buildings and a Camden Bird

So I came back to Camden; the scent of poppers and jerk chicken; the bobbing sea of electric-dyed hair and shiny piercings that glint in the sunlight reflected off the Regent’s canal. It’s almost enough to make me feel nostalgic for the mornings spent pouring over bootlegged records and cones of chips and afternoons drinking lager in sticky-carpeted pubs. *almost*.

On this occasion there was little time for reminiscing as we were heading for brunch at Bird – the third branch of the fried chicken and doughnut mini-chain - before schlepping out to the far North west corner of the borough for the second stop on the Brutaltour.

Even better, they were having a delayed soft launch on our visit, with 50% off food for the weekend. Although our eagerness to eat chicken and drink beer, coupled with a delay in opening their doors, meant we had half an hour to browse the market and reminisce about our misspent youth. Although in my heyday it was more about Cyberdog and Nirvana T-shirts as opposed to the posh coffee and nitrogen ice cream I enjoyed on my last visit.

Anyway, back to brunch, and Bird stands out on the Kentish Town Road with its bright orange crest of a sign. Inside is kitted out with all the exposed brick and strip lighting you could wish for, although the tunes were resolutely old school, the highlight being Ja Rule and J Lo’s ‘I’m Real’ a song that not only does The Ewing know all the words to, but had also invented a little dance as she sang along. The best entertainment while waiting for our food.

The hipster-ness is cranked up to eleven with a beer menu that offers PBR, the sweet and fizzy American lager from Milwaukee that has found favour with the new beard and plaid generation who work in urban lofts rather than sawmills. It may have all the complexity of a pint of R Whites but, like the lemonade, when served ice cold it makes a great foil to spice and grease.

The waffles served with my fried chicken were delicately pale, like my Irish ancestors (I, sadly, inherited the pink gene), and I feared undercooked clagginess. Thankfully, my suspicions were unalloyed as the ‘doneness’ was spot on; crisp without and fluffy within. They also paired very well with the crisp-crusted chicken and side of smoky maple syrup - a winning combo if you like that sweet and savoury thing.

In comparison the star of the show, the fried chicken, was somewhat lacklustre, which was a shame as the whole concept hinges on it. It wasn’t bad, per se, but at seven quid for a drumstick and a small chunk of breast, it didn’t compare to a recent visit to Chick N Sours and was probably on par with the fast-food variety box I may have drunkenly consumed last weekend. Wings fared better and I liked the Nashville extra hot sauce, even if it lacked the powerful chilli punch the name suggested.

Sides wise, we both hungrily fought over the cheesy korean cheese fries with house kewpie mayo and gochujang glaze - which were excellent, although conservatively portioned – but the pickled cucumber was a bit of a let-down, featuring a few wan slices of fruit in an unremarkable dressing that made me want to visit Silk Road where they know how to smack a cucumber up.

While the Ewing was disappointed they didn’t run the full gamut of deserts offered at their other branches – including the retro banana split with squirty cream – I was more than happy they had freshly baked doughnuts, and even more so when I saw one of the daily flavours was cinnamon sugar. For me this was the highlight of brunch; a fluffy orb of warm dough, generously stuffed with vanilla ice cream and decorated with plenty of strawberry sauce and the aforementioned aerosol cream.

The bill came in at thirty quid, which included tip and a seventeen pound soft opening discount for the food. Decent value with the money off, but had we paid in full I think the phrase cheap at half the price would have been more apt. Still, not a bad option if you’re in the area and with a fried chicken and blue collar beer craving.  You can also grab fresh doughnuts to takeaway, available fresh daily, from 11 until sold out.

After lunch we made the second stop on my Brutalist architecture adventure that took us over Primrose Hill (it's windy there, but the view is so nice) to the magnificent Alexandra and Ainsworth Estate.

After first seeing the estate featured in the final episode of Prime Suspect I've wanted to visit Rowley Way and, even on a steel grey February afternoon, it didn't disappoint. Like it or loathe it this is an estate with real character, from the grey and green concrete to the bright blue railings. There's also a huge number of palm trees and tropical plants on the balconies, giving a whole new meaning to urban jungle.

This distinguished development was designed in 1968 by Neave Brown of Camden Council's Architects Department as an attempt to eschew the high rises that were cropping up across the capital and an answer to London's social housing shortage. Completed in 1978 the estate is constructed from site-cast, unpainted reinforced concrete, so beloved of the brutalists, and in 1994 became the first post-war council housing estate to be Grade II listed.

Instead of building up into the skies, he favoured a Ziggurat design of successively receding split level maisonettes, each with their own private outdoor area. This design also means the higher block directly adjacent to the railway line acts as a noise barrier that blocks the noise of the trains.

A must see for any modernists, and if you fancy seeing what's behind the frosted glass, look out for Open House London in September where selected flats on the A&A Estate can often be visited. Find out more about the place - including a chance to watch 'One Below the Queen: Rowley Way Speaks for Itself', a film featuring the estate's residents - link.

Thursday, 4 February 2016

Wild Beer at Jessop House, Cheletenham

I like beer, a fact both my both wallet and waistband would attest to, which makes Tryanuary - a campaign encouraging people to try new independent breweries, beers, bars and bottle shops, and a riposte to the far more sobering Dry January - my kind of challenge. (yes, I'm aware it's February already, blame it on all the beer I've been sampling)

And where better to start then at Cheltenham's Jessop House; a stately Georgian townhouse that houses the first Wild Beer - the innovative Somerset brewers, renowned for their experiments with grains, grapes, and pretty much anything else they can get their hands on - bar and restaurant. 

While Wild Beer may not have been new to me - I first encountered their beverages here while on a trip to Somerset a couple of years ago and have lost several nights subsequently drinking them at my local  - a pub focusing on their drinks was. And although I thought I was already a consummate consumer of their brews, a look at the wonders on their beer board soon put me to rights. 

Alongside their own beers (all keg) there are a few other gems on offer that on our visit included a fruity duo of Hawkshead Raspberry Sour and Magic Rock's Grapefruit Highwire, The latter of which we found an animated customer mixing together with Wild Beer's Bibble (an everyday pale ale) to make a craft turbo shandy while talking loudly about jazz clubs. Mmm, nice. (He was good fun!- TE)

We started with Hula, based on a keg of Sourdough (made with a Hobbs House bakery yeast starter) that 'went mental'. And I'm glad it did, as this was lip-puckering libation with notes of apple, lemon, vinegar and bread. It's certainly a bold and unusual beer, and probably not for everyone, but at 3.8% it made a light and zingy beginning.

What I really like about Wild Beer, as their name might suggest, is their passion for going off piste. We explored their untamed side by sampling three more of their sour/wild ales; Firstly was Zintuki, a blend of Ninkansi (their celebratory ale made with apple juice and champagne yeast) and Somerset Wild, which was good but didn't quite live up to the sum of its parts.

There followed Squashed Grape, a beer made using grape must from a nearby vineyard alongside wild apple yeast, making for dashing purple drink with a pleasant fruity funk and background mustiness I wasn't so keen on. And then the Modus Wine, a beer so secret one of it's descriptions is listed as simply '????'. I'll leave the tasting notes as a mystery to be discovered (and nothing to do with the fact it came after an evening of imbibing and I can't really remember....)

I do, however remember the last beer, the Millionaire salted caramel stout. I wasn't so much of a fan of their Yankee Sandwich (a peanut butter stout that's no longer available) but this struck a perfect bittersweet balance and clocked in at an eminently reasonable 4.7%.

After staggering back up the Bath Road to our hotel for the night, we both woke up feeling far more chipper than we ought to. And hungry; very hungry. The perfect opportunity, then to head back to Jessop House to try their set lunch menu - at a very competitively priced £14 for three courses - alongside another libation or two.

To drink, we went with the beer pairing, two third pint glasses per person, available with the set lunch for just 2.50 extra. Normally, as we had already drunk five of the twelve Wild Beers on the board the night before, I would have been keen to chose my own beer selection, less there was any duplication. But new year, new you and all that and I left it in the lap of the gods, or the bar staff, to decide.

First out were two brews we hadn't yet sampled; the Einsteinium lager for me - complex, as you might expect from these guys, but still retaining the easy-drinking nature of a good lager - and the Somerset Wild for the Ewing, a bolder, sharper beer, based on yeasts found in the orchards of the South West. It might look just like cloudy apple juice but it delivers a devilish punch

My calamari - in a change from the advertised squid with salt and preserved lemon - had been slow braised in a tomato sauce with a tangle of sweet onions and dill. Deceptively simple yet delicious, I've already been thinking about creating this at home; maybe with a few black olives and a good glug of pastis.

The Ewing's potted mackerel with Somerset Wild jelly (to match the beer, or should that be the otherway around) - served in an admirably decent portion along with a green salad - had a nice smokiness if a touch too much gelatine 'bounce' for my taste.

I actually preferred the crisp baguette served with this to my own wholemeal bloomer, and thankfully The Ewing felt the opposite, so we started a little bread exchange; two roundels for half a slice being the going rate.

The stars aligned again (or possibly it was a side affect of all the beer) with our next match, with two more untried libations. Madness, my choice, is their interpretation of a West Coast IPA. The label describes it as hops + hops + hops and it doesn't disappoint. The Ewing's pairing was Wild Gose Chase, a gooseberry infused saison that I've enjoyed before, but lacks a little of the fresh fruit zing the description promises.

The slab of pork belly, while lacking in a carapace of crackle, was still a fine piece of meat. Cooked until the fat had rendered and the flesh shredded apart at the hint of pressure from a fork, served on a bed of crushed roots and roasted leek, this was a winter warmer executed with a deft touch.

The fish was a creamy, smoky, thermonuclear dish of joy which proved a timely heat source for the Ewing, as the cold new year breeze blowing through the sash windows started to bite (I actually discovered that my boots had leaked and I had wet feet, and we all know that once your feet are wet and cold, you're cold  - TE). It could have accommodated a little cheese in the mash (few things wouldn't accommodate a little cheese) and maybe a few peas (greens and salad are available as a side order) but was a fine example of its kind.

After enjoying a cracking visit-and-a-half up to this point, we ordered our puddings, a schooner of Millionare for me and a double espresso for the Ewing and sat back and waited; and waited and waited some more... 

Finally, after a faintly farcical passage of play where everybody else around us (or the two other occupied tables) had been served their food and an attempt had been made to re-clear our table, despite having not actually having received our dessert, it transpired our order had been misplaced. And the doughnuts had to be cooked from scratch.

Ordinarily this turn of events might have pushed my mild-mannered Englishness to the limit.  But apologies were profuse and after a gratis glass of Amouse Bouche  - again one of their suggestions, and the penultimate beer on the board that I hadn't tried (don't worry, I picked up a bottle of the final untried beer, Brett Brett to take home and drink later) - was offered, along with another coffee for the Ewing, we were happy to hang on a little longer. It also helped that their was beer related literature to read and the Millionaire was going down very nicely.

Sadly the Shnoodlepip doughnuts didn't prove to up to the delay. While the concept was good - they are based on their Shnoodlepip beer that contains pink peppercorns, passionfruit and hibiscous - the oddly sized dough balls were dry and chewy, making me long for the tonka bean doughnuts at Drygate in Glasgow, one of my favourite puddings of last year.

The Ewing's Beeramisu fared better, being a clever Wild Beer re-imagining of the Italian classic. Sponge fingers were infused with their Wildebeest crushed espresso stout, layered with vanilla marscapone and topped with chocolate and cacao nibs. Rich, tangy and understated this pudding/drink hybrid marked a fitting start to Tryanuary and a great ending to a memorable (for mostly the right reasons) lunch.