Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Iberica and Ice Cream Ale

When I was young and carefree (not that long ago) and unencumbered by the albatrosses of a mortgage and an adopted cat and trying to keep my, previously gleaming, rust bucket on the road, I used to like to travel, and the Iberian peninsula was always a favourite destination.

Now days, while I'm keen to get away whenever possible, spending the late summer in Seville or a few nights in Bilbao seem to have been usurped by trips to Salford, Hackney Wick and the Gordano services on the M5. As much as I enjoy a pint of Manchester bitter or a bottle of West Country scrumpy, and I don't even mind the drizzle, sometimes you have a hankering for calamari and cold sherry.

On another glamorous recent trip, this time to West Yorkshire to visit the family, my aunt and uncle must have sensed my pining for foreign climes and offered to take us out to lunch at the newly opened Iberica in Leeds city centre. It was as though the weather gods knew too, and attempted to recreate the scorchio Spanish climate for our stay. Indeed, for probably the first time on record, somebody got sunburnt just outside Leeds. Sadly that somebody was me; my nose is still peeling in protest.

Found in Grade II listed Hepper House, a former Bonhams auction house, it's a striking building, with a glass roof and vaulted ceiling, that oozes Moorish sophistication the way a good tortilla oozes when you cut it. The unisex loos are as impressive as the main dining room, with their patterned tiles, piles of fluffy towels and fancy sink. Apologies for the blurry photo, either the result of switching on my macro lens or my greasy fingers from eating too many croquettas.

As we were with my aunt, clearly there was bottle of vino tinto involved, in this case a beefy tempranillo from a big wine list. They also offer a huge range of 'fishbowl' GnT's - although sadly not at Spanish prices. Beerwise, along with ice cold Mahou from the tap, they stock bottles of Alhambra Reserva 1925. An interesting beer, as far as lagers go, with a spicy, malty flavour that hid its 6.4% well and paired nicely with the fried food. 

The jamon croquettas were masterful; a gossamer thin crust gently cradling the wobbly, ham-flecked bechamel interior. Blistered padron peppers were sweet, salty and smoky, although surely the best thing about them is playing chilli roulette and hoping (or not) that you get the hot one.

The tortilla, although requested to be served still soft in the centre, oozed more of an unappetising watery puddle when cut into. Taste wise, it was pretty good, if a little salty with the potatoes seeming to have already been fried, like little chunks of patatas bravas.

Better were the chorizo lollipops; chunks of charcuterie impaled on cocktails sticks and dipped in batter that had turned a vivid Donald Trump hue on deep frying from the paprika in the sausage. A well-judged pear aioli was both sweet with fruit and punchy with garlic.

The standout plate was the, gloriously gothic, arroz negro; a short grain rice dish cooked with cuttlefish ink and a fish stock and finished with prawns and springy rings of cephalopod. A dish that leaves you with ghoulishly blackened lips that makes you suddenly thankful for the abundance of mirrors in the loos.

Hake with green sauce and a token smattering of salad was light and fresh and accurately cooked, if a little underwhelming - the biggest danger when you try and refine the salty, smoky rough and tumble of good Spanish food. The Ewing did have high praise for the bed of sauteed sugar snaps, though.

The dish of the day (offered with your choice of tapas to start for a bargain £12) was fabada, the frugal stew of beans and pork from Asturias. Although the thrifty nature of the dish was emphasised by the solitary slices of morcilla and chorizo bobbing on top, and the porky stock the beans were cooked in was a little lacking in depth, the beans themselves were wonderful; nutty and creamy and cooked to the perfect consistency.

Tocinillo de Cielo is a desert that roughly translates as heaven’s custard or heaven's little pig - surely the most glorious name for a pudding. It even looks a bit like bacon, with its two tone stripes.

Modelled on the ubiquitous wobbly flan (or crème caramel across the border) this is a denser and sweeter dessert, with a rich flavour that reminded me of the egg yolk custard buns that round out a good dim sum feast. The salted caramel ice cream alongside was flawless, although it did take the dish to a burnt sugar crescendo that kept my pancreas working overtime. The only part I couldn’t get excited about were the wafers, that resembled fossilised leaves in the park, and had about as much flavour.

Other desserts included a strawberry cheesecake that was topped with shavings of that well know Spanish cheese, Parmesan. While not a strictly orthodox addition in a Spanish restaurant, I enjoyed the contrast of smooth and bland with sharp and salty. Even better was the fantastically tart and smooth strawberry sorbet, probably the only time I have seen the addition of a sorbet enhance a cheesecake in any way, although I would happily have eaten it on its own.

To carry on the holiday theme we had to have ice cream, this time in the form of the Neapolitan Pale Ale brewed by Northern Monk in collaboration with Tall Boys Beer Market (treasure trove of beery beverages found in the Corn Exchange). 

Originally a one-off, the brew was so popular they have just brewed the next batch, and we enjoyed it fresh from the brewery. Still one of my favourite places for a pint, Northern Monk combines fantastic beer  - both their own and others – with great staff, cakes and pies and the best light I’ve ever seen, making even my blurry phone pics look good on Instagram; even with #nofilter. And while north Leeds may not be Lloret del Mar, the beer is much better.

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Concrete and Chinatown

Despite appearances to the contrary, the #brutaltour is continuing apace (well, maybe not quite that quickly) as I attempt my quest to concrete chase across the capital. To deal with the ever increasing backlog of buildings, our latest instalment - after my long-suffering wife had looked at my Brutalist London map and then at my stilted progress - managed to cleverly combine a tour around at the centre of town with a refreshment stop after every stop we crossed off the list.

Concrete and Chinese food, the perfect combination - although I'll spare you most of the architecture in this post as I'm currently writing a mid-way #brutaltour round up featuring all the grey concrete anyone could possibly desire.

Showing a fine disregard to all the sensible advice my parents gave me when growing up (sometimes one of the only good things about being an adult), our first lunch stop was for ice cream sundaes. And not any ice cream sundaes, these being from Tsujiri, a Kyoto-based chain of matcha tea houses who have recently opened a store on Soho’s Rupert Street.

When the Ewing and I went to Kyoto we tried matcha ice cream made of tofu (pretty much the only positive use for soy beans I have encountered), which not only melted far slower but didn’t fall out the cone, even when held upside down (a fact I tested quite thoroughly and with child-like glee). And while Tsujiri wasn’t as fun, it was just as tasty.

An Instagrammer's dream, with their perfectly coiffured green swirls and colourful additions, both the matcha sundaes we tried were good. My original paired candied chestnuts with sweetened red beans, mochi balls and the crackle of brown rice puffs (Rice Krispies by any other name). The Ewing’s choice bought cake to the party and was finished with a slab of matcha chiffon sponge, chewy rice balls and a layer of cornflakes. 

The star of the show, the green tea ice cream, was excellent; milky and smooth with a fresh, grassy bitterness that counteracted the tooth-achingly sugary topping and was served in substantially deceptive portions. Don't expect change from a fiver, but when a Mr Whippy in a stale cone can now easily run you to half that, they start to look fair value.  

After a successful stop at the new pretender we revisited Jen Cafe, an old stalwart on Newport Place, for our next snackette. Occupying a corner site, the brightly painted green woodwork and triangular shaped plot makes it hard to miss - or just look for the crowds pressed up at the window, watching the women making the Beijing dumplings they are known for.

There is a small selection of roast meats and rice and soups etc. on the menu (mostly re-heated in the microwave) but it’s best to stick with the short list of dough-based classics – They also do a mean line in fresh juices and Honk Kong comfort classics like spam sandwiches, toast with lashings of condensed milk and hot Coke with lemon; good for a cold, apparently.

Our portion of fried pot stickers were decent, but I think I might prefer the simply boiled version, topped with a slick of chilli oil and some chinese black vinegar, which are also a pound cheaper. They also use the same flour and water dough to make excellent hand cut noodles, served with a spicy pork sauce and chopped cucumber (a Chinese version of bolognaise). To drink, both the fresh Watermelon and classic milk versions of their bubble tea were both as good as any I’ve had.

Don’t expect anything too refined; the dumpling wrappers are solid and stodgy (just how I like it), the ‘glasses’ are made of plastic and it can be cramped and hectic inside - wear sensible shoes if you plan on using the loo.... But for a cheap and filling feed, and surprisingly charming service (well, on our last visit, at least) it remains an integral part of Chinatown.

It was at this this point we realised that, despite careful pre-planning, the #brutaltour had been usurped by a trail of gluttony followed by an hour looking in all the chinese supermarkets on Gerard Street. Nothing new there then. So after an intermission to go and chase some concrete (blog roundup to follow) we returned to Chinatown for a second round of eating and drinking.

Bigbe Chicken was the stop I was most looking forward to - a hole in the wall that has sprung up promising 'Taiwan's best crispy and juicy chicken' that quickly become social media's latest darling; and most of the rest of London's judging by the queues on our visit.

Here, as the name suggests, it’s about 'London's number one' deep fried chicken breast. Popcorn chicken, drumsticks and squid make up the rest of the regular menu, but you can also check out the specials board to the right of the counter for treats like ‘bone’ or crispy wings. 

While I'm normally a leg girl, the promise of ‘up to 30cm’ of breast was too hard to resist, which I chose topped with chilli powder, - decent heat but not incendiary -  from their rag-tag assortment of flavour shakers on the counter. Cheese and tangy plum, anyone?

Make no mistake, this thing is a behemoth, and particularly tricky to eat when fresh from its double dipping in the fryer. Obviously, we gave it our best shot and - having sampled lots of London's fried chicken offerings through the years - this was certainly up there with the juiciest. It's unlicensed, but I recommend accompanying the hot poultry with a cold can of, non-alcoholic, Taiwanaese Apple Sidra

Happy Lemon was the final refreshment stop; a good shout as the Ewing still calls me the Lemonhead - after my (allegedly) citrus fruit-shaped face. Sticking to type, I chose the frozen lemon and grapefruit slushy which, with its plentiful chunks of fresh fruit, struck the good bittersweet balance between the two.

While the matcha latte with rock salt and cheese sounded more like something Chef would whip up on South Park than a delicious drink, my wife chose this as her beverage of choice from the bewildering array of drinks on offer. Ultimately it wasn’t quite as fearsome as it sounded; the the green tea latte was a pale imitation of the matcha at Tsujiri, but the salty/sweet cream cheese-like topping was strangely addictive.

It’s not often I hail (boom) an incoming thunderstorm, but the distant rumbles of thunder and the close atmosphere as we walked through the streets of Chinatown and back to Marylebone bought back memories of walking around the muggy night markets of Mong Kok, giddy with jet-lag and the novelty of newly discovered cups of iced boba tea, which provided the perfect refreshment in the muggy atmosphere.

But while Hong Kong may have the dazzling skyline of Victoria Harbour, our trip took in one final treat; the Welbeck Street carpark. Home of not just, in my humble opinion, the best place to park your car in the Big Smoke, but also one of its finest burgers. But, with the carpark/restaurant unlisted and a large hotel chain having recently acquired the site for redevelopment, that’s a story that’s waiting to be written.

Monday, 13 June 2016

The Larder House and the Library - Southbourne, Dorset

As much as I'm always excited to try new independent restaurants and bars, I have eaten and drunk enough to understand the appeal of chains. In a world of uncertainty it's sometimes nice to know how many pieces of pepperoni are going to be on your pizza.

Mostly though, it's good to embrace a bit of spontaneity; at least when it comes to dinner. Yes, I have eaten some ill-advised flavour combinations and experienced some comical ineptitude while eating out (chains, of course, are not immune to this, just in a more predictable way), but the passion, humour and innovation when you find somewhere new far outweighs the chance of sampling a duff.

Which is why I was eagerly anticipating our visit to the Larder House, who describe themselves, rather grandly, on their website as being 'infused with traditions of bygone eras and through the continuous researching into the greatest foods from around Europe' despite it's prosaic setting of Southbourne High Street, wedged between the hairdressers and a bank.

As it was also the Ewing's birthday, we started with a few oysters - after seeing them sitting on ice in a wine bucket - as who doesn't love slurping on a fresh bivalve before dinner. Well, me actually, having never really enjoyed any sort of huitre, especially a raw one. These however, while not quite a briny revelation, were rather good. I didn't even need to employ the bijou jug of shallot and red wine vinegar.

One thing I do dig is cured pig and I found it impossible to resist the hand carved ham from Teruel, especially as I had to walk past the sweetly glistening leg in its wooden carving stand on the way to our table. Served with stone baked bread and olive oil, the sweet and nutty meat, edged with ribbons of buttery fat, was porcine perfection and served in a pleasingly generous portion.

The Ewing also had pork - this time gelatinous hunks of long braised pig's cheek served with a Japanese/Iberian fusion of panko-crusted morcilla croquettes and a token scattering of salad.

Behind Stornoway black pudding - my Mum's Scottish neighbour picks up a chub from Charles McLeod for us at Christmas - morcilla might be my favourite type, the iron-rich blood offset by the addition of raisins and rice. Here the sweetness cut through the heft of the pig making for a surprisingly light and springy dish.

A behemoth of a duck breast, from the daily specials board, was nicely judged - arriving the same blushing pink hue as my wife's nose after her afternoon spent  in the sun. Almost better was the pillowy peaks of creamy mash - reminding me of my Dad's, who's a supreme spud masher - and the shiny gravy studded with lardons of pancetta and fresh peas.

Also on as a special was the trio of fish (which no one can now recall, but may have included mackerel and hake) served with a middle eastern inspired melange of samphire, cous cous, harrissa and yoghurt. A fresh and summery combination that made another good looking plate, despite my picture trying its hardest to suggest the contrary. 

Some careful pre-visit menu studying - always a risky prospect - meant I was hotly anticipating the honey and malt cheesecake with caramelized clementine for pudding. Thankfully it took pride of place on the short list of sweets and, apart from the listless slice of citrus fruit that displayed none of the promised char, this was a creamy, crunchy, claggy, joy; my perfect kind of pudding.

The Ewing, in an uncharacteristic move that eschewed all chocolate-related options, went with the blood orange sorbet and berries. Not a dieter's choice - the homemade brandy basket resembled Walter Raleigh's ruff, and was just as big while the tuile wafer wouldn't have looked out of place on Jodrell Bank, but a sensible one to help with helping to cool down and replenish lost fluids (not sure all the g&ts with extra ice really count).

As an ex-librarian of a decade’s good standing after-dinner drinks at the Library, the Larderhouse’s secret speakeasy accessed through a unmarked side door, were a must. Upstairs, in contrast to the light and airy dining room, is styled like an eccentric gentleman’s club - minus the paunchy gents with piggy eyes and port-reddened noses - with décor featuring an array of creepy taxidermy and curios.  

Instead of books, the shelves hold an oeuvre of different spirits from around the world and the international theme continues with a drinks menu that is loosely based on a jaunt across the globe.  It's a concise list of short, punchy drinks that don’t hold back on the booze (or the price, with most ranging from £11-£13), and if nothing works up your thirst they will shake something up off piste, based on your usual drinking preferences - just don’t expect fishbowls or Jaeger bombs.

Cocktail-wise expect the usual kind of schtick, especially if you’ve drunk anywhere in East London in the last decade – drinks served with complimentary popcorn and a plastic statue of liberty, drinks served with lottery tickets (we were quids in - well, singular) and drinks served with dried mushrooms and a stuffed animal. 

The latter accompanied my, succinctly named, Cognac - foie gras washed brandy infused with mushrooms, pretty much just tasted of burning (no bad thing, in my book), although I ramped up the fungi flavour by nibbling on some of the said porcini garnish. The Savoy was very bitter, perfect for  those who like a negroni (unfortunately not all of out party, it seems), although I think my favourite was an off menu libation, based on a whisky sour, well, from what I can remember of it…

If you’ve got a sweet tooth then finish with the Venezuela which in contrast to most of the other drinks we tried, including the delicious, but very tart, non-alcoholic numbers for the baby-carrier – tasted like condensed milk and fruit juice over crushed ice. It’s also served in a very cute tiki-style glass with a lima (probably not really a lima) on the handle. It’s also the only bar I’ve been to where they serve dishes of chocolate raisins to nibble with your drinks, an idea I thoroughly applaud.

Words like quirky, hidden gem and one-off seem to be tacked on to pretty much anything than isn’t an homogeneous high street chain, but the Larder House and Library really do fit the spec. Even more impressive when they occupy the same sort of anonymous high street plot that chains now mostly fill. Add in cocktails, cigars, chocolate raisins and a birthday girl that couldn’t have been happier and it’s clear the Larder House is no weak link.