Wednesday, 25 May 2016

The art of compromise - bank holiday beer special

Sometimes, I think the key to happiness is mastering the art of compromise (although, at others, I'm pretty sure it's all about eating cold pizza in my dressing gown). For instance, the Ewing loves reclaimed furniture - or anything made out of an old pallet - I love pizza and both of us have a healthy interest in beer. Which made the Crate Brewery, which prominently features all three of the above, a particularly appealing choice for the Bank Holiday, while also giving us an extra day to get over the hangover.

It also happens to be in Hackney Wick and the overground rail closures, coupled with the bank holiday bus replacement service, meant we pretty much needed the extra twenty four hours to get back home again.

Situated in the White Building on the River Lea Navigation  - a canalised river running from rural Hertfordshire to the River Thames at Bow Creek - the bar is the perfect spot for a few beers in the sunshine. The waterfront location also means visits from The Record Deck, a working barge that also sells vinyl, that the Ewing was very pleased to see moored up and already spinning tunes as we arrived.

The bar at Crate is a masterclass in recycling. Old railway sleepers, cleverly cobbled together from local artists' cast-offs, make up the bar; ladders and ratchet straps make indoor seats, rusty bed springs have been fashioned into eccentric light fittings and the canal-side benches and tables are made from scaffold planks - even the spare off-cuts of wood have been used to make planters for a herb garden. Across the yard they have a brew-shed, where they make the beers. In other words, the Ewing's paradise.

To start I tried the Crate Pale ale, both in bottle and on keg; the latter was cleaner and crisper, but also less aromatic and not as interesting. A very nice beer, either way, and at 4.5 percent, perfect for a session in the sun. The Ewing also went for something steady to start with in the Sour, a fantastically vibrant beer infused with a touch of passionfruit and hibiscus while retaining the power to make you grimace slightly on sipping that a good sour should.

They specialise in wood-fired pizza - more specifically crisp, Roman style pizza, rather than softer Neapolitan style. While it’s significantly easier to eat, lacking the somewhat soupy centre of a southern Italian pie, a roman base does bring to mind a giant Carr’s water cracker. As a biscuit to eat with a lump of cheese, that’s probably a good thing - they were always my dad’s favourite when I was growing up -  but as a vehicle for melted cheese, I prefer something a little less friable.

That said, my favourite ever pizza was eaten in Rome - a Bianca pie, topped with courgette flowers, anchovy and mozzarella - cooked by a tiny guy who resembled John Paul II, and thereafter nicknamed ‘Pizza Pope’for the rest of our trip.

The toppings here are pretty outré. You can stick to cheese or meat if you like, although the prosciutto and salami were off on our visit, but they also offer walnut and sweet potato, banana and dahl (even the Ewing wasn't sure), and, our choice, Middle Eastern lamb with pine nuts, spinach and mint.

The crisp base and the ovine topping made it a close cousin to the lamachun - although canalside it will set you back twelve quid, as opposed to the three quid of Green Lanes. Commendably, certainly at that price, they hadn’t skimped on the toppings and a more robust crust meant that they held up well. It also went very well with two halves of their keg stout and the cask porter.

Billed as the UK's first dedicated tank bar, that's the fermenting vessel rather than a military vehicle, our next stop, Howling Hops, was just around the corner. Of course their too hip for signage, so look for the crowds drinking from dimpled schooners outside if the weather's nice, or the scribbled note on the side door if it isn't.

Crate Brewery Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Originally, they started brewing in the basement of the Cock Tavern, on nearby Mare Street, and selling their beers in the bar above. But soon thirsty East Londoners meant demand had outstripped their capacity and a bigger site was sought. This one mixes bar and brewery, allowing you to drink the freshest beer straight from the source, while giving them the capacity to bottle some of their beers for distribution, too.

I started with their Running Beer brown ale, before moving on to the Pale XX Superior No.1 and the IPA 2 West Coast Special. All good, the brown ale and IPA particularly. The Ewing stuck with the blonde beers; an Amber Dexter amber ale and the  East End Hefeweizen, brewed in collaboration with Pressure Drop. The latter reconfirming my dislike of wheat beers while being my wife's favourite of the trip.

The food is provided by Billy Smokes, with a range of smoked, fried and fermented goods, including the Big Fuck Off Tray of Meat (an array of protein including glazed ham hock, sausages, beef and lamb belly) available. Our visit saw a more restrained selection, with a small selection of wraps and buns and a handful of sides on offer.

My sausage bun, a chunky disc of homemade smoked sausage made with the Running beer, was served on a shiny brioche bun and came topped with a smattering of citrus slaw and house bbq sauce. All the classic components done well, this made a handsome (second) lunch.

The beer can chicken roll was more divisive. The Ewing loved it (it was sublime, believe me - TE), and she is a connoisseur in chicken sandwiches, but I found it hard to see it as much more than a sarnie. Yes, it was a commendably good sarnie piled with juicy chicken, which at seven quid it should have been, but was lacking much in the way of promised BBQ flavour and made me think wistfully about crispy smoked thighs and smoky, charred wings.

One thing we did agree on was the pickles, a snappy little selection of cucumbers, carrot, peppers and green beans (a very underestimated pickling vegetable) that made me want to go home and crack open the Sarsons and make some of my own. (There’s a solid preserving pedigree in my lineage, with our family being the lucky recipients of several jars of legendary Nanny Pickle each year until my Nan recently hung up her apron).

Predictably, just as were leaving Howling Hops, the Bank Holiday heavens opened - which threatened to make the ride on the number 30, all the way from Hackney Wick to Marble Arch, feel like a very long one; especially after the last round of beers. 

But nabbing a spot 'driving the bus' and gaining Prince for company - we picked up his eponymous 1979 vinyl album from the record barge moored by Crate (a compromise that meant the Ewing letting me wail along to 'I Wanna Be Your Lover' at ear-splitting levels if she could get a new record player) meant the promise of some slow jams could make even the slow crawl home enjoyable.

Howling Hops Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Wednesday, 18 May 2016

They see me rollin' - Song Que, Hackney

One of my most endearing memories of the Ewing is from when we visited Song Que for the first time - eight years ago, on the first of her birthdays that we spent together - and she ordered the prawn rice paper rolls. I still remember her sheer unbridled joy at the arrival of the crustacean, vermicelli noodle and herb-stuffed cylinders; in fact, I’m still not sure I’ve ever known anyone quite so happy with a new discovery since my cousin tasted chocolate cake for the first time and broke down in a sugar-crazed frenzy that, decades later, no one has quite let him forget.

Happily, the Ewing is still just as awed by the simple things in life (hence why she married me) and was equally excited to return for another helping of summer rolls - and a few cold Saigon beers - for the auspicious occasion of her most recent birthday.

Not much has changed since our last visit, save a few grey hairs and a couple of crow's feet (speak for yourself - TE), and the distinctive green frontage remains a stalwart on the Kingsland Road, London's mecca for lovers of Vietnamese. It's also next door to the wonderful Geffrye Museum, a homage to the London home through the ages housed in 18th-century almshouses with a wonderful walled herb garden and plenty of room for a picnic on the front lawn if spicy food isn't your thing.

After a happy day featuring a salt beef bagel breakfast from the near by Brick Lane Beigal bake, followed by an afternoon admiring the blooms on the Columbia Road and appetite-sharpening at the Geffrye, our plate of prawn summer rolls were ordered with keen anticipation.

If I was being fussy the swift delivery, coupled with the fridge cold temperature and slightly gummy rice wrappers, suggested they had been pre-made a while earlier, All was forgiven, as they were very good - maybe not quite a Proustian madeline moment, but delicious nevertheless, especially when dipped in the moreish sweet peanut sauce alongside.

The main draw at Song Que is the beef noodle soup, or pho (or fur, if you want to be linguistically correct or smugly irritating). Firstly, I’m not really a fan of noodles in soup (especially rice noodles) as a general rule – too wholesome, too difficult to eat - but this is the dish they are famous for, and it’s the dish I ate last time I was here, so I felt duty bound to order it to recreate the experience properly.

Here it comes with beef steak, beef flank, beef tendon and beef tripe; or any combination of the above. The first time I tried it I shied away from the tripe, reckoning the glassy strips of cartilaginous tendon would be enough to deal with. This time I was more bullish (see what I did there) and went for the classic combo, reasoning - rather unreasonably considering my track record with ordering strange body parts - that I would barely notice the tripe with all the other good things bobbing about in my bowl.

Of course, what was the first thing I dredged up when the steaming broth arrived, a huge coil of the stuff, that wound round my chopstick in a manner of a giant octopus clinging the hull of a ship. Well, maybe not that dramatic, but it still looked pretty menacing. So I did what I always do when faced with unmentionable things; doused it in chilli oil (err, asked if I wanted to help you eat it more like - TE)

It would have helped to know at this point that Vietnamese chilli oil, or at least the version at Song Que, is not the sugary, MSG laden stuff I normally eat surreptitiously straight from the jar. This was pure, adulterated heat - meaning I couldn’t really taste the tripe, or feel my tongue for that matter. After the spice had died down, it all proved far less fearsome than I had feared especially after I flung in the dish of fresh herbs and beansprouts that accompanies each bowl and added a healthy spritz of lime. I’m still not keen on rice noodles, though.

The Ewing also chose noodles in soup, but this time egg noodles with a spicy broth with king prawns. Already an unusual choice for someone who isn’t keen on too much chilli, she then seemed to lose leave of her senses entirely and eat a piece of the accompanying chopped birds eye chillies. I was denied photo evidence, but much sweating and swearing while squinting at me through mascara-smudged eyes ensued. Yes, there is a pattern to our stupidity. 

Fortuitously, south east Asian deserts seem to be designed as a salve for burnt mouths and the Vietnamese three colour desert, che ba mau, is no exception. Layers of sweetened beans (here resembling Heinz finest) pandan jelly and coconut milk, topped with crushed ice and served to be mixed into a unholy mess tableside.

As far as these kind of things go, I found it strangely enjoyable. The sugary beans working with the floral notes of the jelly and the cool, bland coconut to make a sweet and soothing ending to the meal. And just look at that little face; still never as happy as when she's found something new to scoff.

Song Que Café Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Thursday, 12 May 2016

Prawns, Steak and Strawberries

Prawns steak and strawberries; a disparate selection of ingredients that sounds like the reply if you make the mistake of asking a five year old what they want for dinner - I still fondly remember my best friend from primary school answering 'smoked salmon' when his mum asked him what he'd like in his daily sandwiches. He was descended from a prime minister, so clearly he had refined tastes.

Lunchboxes aside, I'm still no clearer on the rationale behind the spring set menu being advertised for at the Kings Arms in Christchurch, or even if there was one. But if the combination sounds incongruous, these remain some of my favourite ingredients and my inner-five year old was very excited.

I have eaten at the the restaurant, found in an imposing Georgian building in the centre of the town, before. Although that occasion - with a large group of friends, well lubricated with plenty of wine - ended up with a wedding being crashed, some impromptu magic with a bowl of sugar cubes and an unfortunate incident with a frying pan.

This time was far more staid; a quiet weekday afternoon with just me and the wife and a couple of other tables occupied by ladies wot lunch. We didn't completely pass up on the vino though - cunningly picking a large glass of rose each, to pair with both the seafood and beef and to usher in the beginnings of summer, where having a chilled pink drink in hand in the middle of the day is pretty much the rules.

My starter was the Poole Bay shrimps, described succinctly as 'small prawns with toast'. Like their more famous cousins from Morecambe, these were sweet little commas of crustacean served bathed with their sweet herby juices on hot buttered toast. A simple plate of food that sung through the quality of the local ingredients.

The 'light vegetable crab and ginger and broth with spiced prawn dumplings' was more like the gloopy chicken and sweetcorn soup that comes as part of the meal for one at every old school chinese takeaway - which is no bad thing in my book. It was also mined through with a generous helping of springy little seafood stuffed dumplings. A solid start.

Bavette is one of my favourite cuts of steak although, as Rowley Leigh so succinctly put it, it turns to sisal carpet if overcooked. Here, although it was advertised as being served rare, someone hadn't read to the script and it was pushing past medium when it arrived. No matter, it was a decent piece of meat, served bathed in an even better sauce infused with garlic and thyme.

Unlike the steak, the chips were verging on underdone, although they were just on the right side of pale and interesting and were compared, favourably, to Maccy D's by the Ewing, a connoisseur in such matters. And, although not up to the standards of breadcrumbed onion rings and sauteed mushrooms my mum used to make to go with a steak, the classic watercress and grilled tomato garni were good.

A classic pairing in America, strawberry and rhubarb is still pretty novel combination on these shores. While I can see its potential - sweet berries complimenting the sour rhizomes - here my crumble filling was sadly wan and watery. Thankfully, the dish was redeemed by the crisp, crunchy topping and a masterful strawberry-infused custard, like a kind of grown up angel delight, which I was happy to just spoon from the jug.

Having been spoilt for mille feuille after visiting Jacques Genin in France earlier this year, this strawberry and cream version was always going to have a lot to live up to. And whilst it couldn't scale the dizzy heights of the Parisian pastry master, it was a more than passable effort with commendably flaky pastry, good creme pat and plenty of strawberry sauce.

And yes, while it probably wasn't as much fun without the jaeger bombs and the smuggled boxes of exploding fun snaps, what in life is, and at least I could still remember it the next morning.

You can also catch the menu, alongside the complimentary glass of fizz, during the Christchurch Festival - from 1st to 21st May - at the Christchurch Harbour Hotel. Although the last time we were in town, for the Festival Street Market, I was very happy lazing in the sun with a couple of pints of raspberry cider and a curried lamb pasty.

Wednesday, 4 May 2016

Wey Hey, it's Grandad's Birthday

I wasn't ever planning to write about our recent adventures in Weymouth. I mean, if you take a ragtag bunch of assorted family members who live scattered across the country and gather them together in a confined space to celebrate Grandad Alec’s (aka the Legend) 90th birthday, what could go right?

As it happens, plenty. Granted, we had to access our attic room via a slanted staircase that took some doing after a few pints (although look at the at view when we got there); and we got caught in a torrential rainstorm while walking home after dinner, and the high winds on the Sunday gave us an unexpected exfoliating treatment as we walked along the seafront. I’m still finding errant sand now. But overall, as Mary Poppins might say, it was practically perfect in every way.

We ate whitebait by the harbour in the afternoon sun; watched the Grand National in Rendezvous, (the last time I was in there I was dressed in a tiger onesie and the time before as a sailor, replete with pipe and beard…) and we still managed to sneak in an ice cream cone at Boho Gelato and a pint at the Boot before the birthday dinner.

Dinner itself was at the Galley, an unassuming looking restaurant adjacent to Brewer’s Quay, serving solid bistro classics straight out of the 70s. A blog post wasn’t on the cards - getting through the meal without incident or indigestion was my primary concern.

But, as it turned out, the whole evening was kind of brilliant, in that eccentrically English way. Good food, good service and great company. The kind of evening that makes you forget everyone’s faults and foibles and realise that, all in all, family are pretty great. A shout for the staff too, who bore our quirks with good grace and provided impeccable service all evening. 

While the company may have surpassed the culinary on this occasion, our meal was great in many ways. from the quintessentially old school menu - featuring gems such as gammon and pineapple, scampi and garlic mushrooms - to the atmospheric interior, with its stately flagstone floors, candlelight and dark wood, that was somewhere between a smugglers inn and a Berni Inn.

Our evening started with a variety of classic seafood dishes. And while my local Portland crabcakes may have contained a touch more potato than was strictly necessary, they were nicely made and the accompanying spicy mango and chilli salsa packed a surprising punch.

Scallops and prawns, gratinated in the half shell in a creamy wine sauce and a topping of crispy breadcrumbs were good, if a little dry. Better were Grandad's scallops, served simply basted in plenty of garlic butter. At just under a tenner, the scallop dishes weren't cheap, conversely the accompanying bottle of decent pinot, was chosen from a well-priced list (and the first of several).

For my main I chose the classic Come Dine with Me stalwart; beef wellington. Despite always being excited to see this on a menu, I think I've only ever really enjoyed it once - cooked impeccably by a friend of my parents many moons ago. I do, however, periodically order it on occasions like this, just to make sure. 

This didn't do too much to change my opinion, although it wasn't without it merits. For a start the pastry carapace was impeccable cooked, although this crispy triumph lead to the dish's biggest downfall; the fillet being overcooked, the obvious danger with an individual portion. That said I loved both the layer of garlicky pate on top and parma ham wrapped around the meat. The glossy mushroom and madeira sauce was also spot on.

My Mum has visited before and, being a creature of habit, she always has the Wessex sirloin steak cooked rare (they nailed the cooking with this one) and topped with sauteed mushrooms and stilton. Make no mistake, this was a huge strip of cow, only dwarfed by the even bigger pile of (very good) chippy style chips. Being as I was sat next to her, I was lucky enough to try a mouthful (or several) and concur it's worth a repeat visit.

Puddings are displayed in a cabinet, reminding me of family holidays in the Algarve, where the kids would escape from the table after dinner and press our grubby little faces excitedly against the glass, squabbling over what to chose.

In Portugal they only ever seemed to have boring creme caramel or rice pudding, and maybe a chocolate mousse if you were lucky, but here we were spoilt for choice. Pick of the bunch was the Ewing's homemade banoffee roulade, a desert of pillowy meringue, fresh cream and fruit, drizzled in caramel sauce. One for the sweet of tooth.

I couldn't manage to eat another morsel, but who could resist the charms of an irish coffee; the sweet cream and whiskey-laced beverage proving the perfect soporific send-off alongside the plate of after dinner chocolate mints that accompanied the bill.

And who could forget, the guest of honour himself. This picture is from my wedding, taken just after his second (or third) slice of chocolate cake following a huge plate of suckling pig. Mum said he didn't eat again for a week. A very happy Birthday to a true gentleman.

Image of Restaurant exterior from