Tuesday, 30 August 2016

Wham BAM

Everybody’s got a friend at school (yeah, even me) who‘s a little bit different (in fact, this was me); in the restaurant world this friend would be Black Axe Mangal. For a start, you hear BAM before you see it, the heavy metal music booming out above the noise from the Highbury Corner roundabout (a great location for catching the bus back to Marylebone). 

I still remember my dad approaching my room when I first moved in to student halls and telling me no one would want to come and speak to me with the music (Manic Street Preachers, The Holy Bible) turned up so loud. Well, of course, that was kind of the point.

Here, the music competes with the smell of charcoal-grilled meat and freshly baked bread, a little more enticing than the student scents of piles of washing and congealed pizza. The heavy metal soundtrack is also complimented by the decor, a Kiss mural painted on the brick oven at the back of the tiny dining room, where their famous flat breads are fired by tattooed head chef Lee Tiernan – formally of St John and Spitalfields Bread and Wine.

And let’s not forget the floor, where the stripped back floorboards have been artfully graffitied with multi-coloured spurting cocks. Not something I ever replicated growing up, although I did have some Mapplethorpe prints and a postcard of Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ stuck to my noticeboard.

The short menu is similarly uncompromising; simple dishes full of bold flavours with lots of spice and ingredients such as pigs tails, lamb’s offal, quail and scallops. You may even get to finish with Jameson whisky ice cream, if you’re lucky.

The squid ink flatbread with egg yolk and smoked cod’s roe was a party both in my mouth and on the plate - quite literally with all the pink glitter strewn across the top. As an avowed egg-avoider, I was wary of the just-set yolk, but dining solo meant I had to face my fears head-on. After a satisfying nudge with the tip of my knife that set the gooey blaze coloured yolk flowing, it was scooped up, along with the bracingly salty fish paste, with a chunk of the puffy bread that is all freshly baked on site.

The burnt hispi cabbage with fermented shrimp butter sounds about as exciting as a side of vegetables can get. Half a cabbage, flame grilled until it’s edged with a bitter char is served soaked in a sweet slick of melted butter studded with tiny preserved pink shrimp. The very essence of umami.

The big disadvantage of eating solo is lack of capacity; the very real fear you’re going to miss out on something. Shared between a group, half a cabbage isn’t a lot; but eaten all alone you start to feel a as if a wafer thin mint would be a bridge too far.

But, while brassica overload meant I had to skip the mission spiced quail and the scallop with crispy pig's tail, there was no chance that I was going to pass up the dexter mixed grill with bulls heart tomatoes and hash browns. A decision I wasn’t to regret, despite getting the meat sweats as the platter of barbecued beef and fried potatoes arrived at the table.

Alongside a superlative piece of steak – served perfectly charred outside and very rare within, which seems to be the default level of ‘doneness’ here – was a chunk of kidney and some thin slices of tongue. Now, I’ve previously never met a kidney I’ve liked – a couple of chunks in a steak pie might slip down covered in enough mustard and gravy, but even the dainty little rabbits kidneys we were serve at Le Manoir had that unfortunate uric tang – but this chunk of offal was a springy, smoky joy. 

The blushing tongue, not always a favourite, was also spot on; a far cry from the creepy rolls of bobbly, gelatinous pink stuff that always freaked me out when I had to cover the deli counter at the supermarket I worked in as a teenager. 

As I've said above, BAM is not for the faint-hearted;  it’s brash and unapologetic, just like the food they serve, but a perfect choice for those who like smoke and salt and blood and their heavy metal dialled up to 11. Pretty much all of my favourite things, bar the choice of music, although I’m not sure the Smiths sounds quite as good cranked through the speakers. But, despite the differences in musical tastes, we'd still definitely be firm friends.

Keeping up my summer tradition of featuring ice cream in every blog, I also made a stop to Udderlicious on Upper Street. I would say it was after my main course but, as you can tell from the sunshine, it was actually before dinner. Hey, surely having pudding first is one of the few perks of being a grown up.

Set up by Raj and Raj, a married couple with a huge love of frozen deserts, Udderlicious ice creams are made organic milk from British cows. And, if you go on their website , you can even chose what core flavours they stock each month, as well as suggesting your own flavour of the month. Chocolate Marmite, dandelion and burdock, or bourbon sour sorbet anyone.

I chose a double scoop tub; the chocolate peanut butter was smooth and dreamy, although a little underpowered in the legume department. Yeah, I've played Trival Pursuit enough to know that peanuts aren’t real nuts. My second choice, espresso with chocolate biscotti chunks, was even better. As an adult I’ve come to realise that coffee, pairing so well with cream and sugar, is possibly the ideal flavour for a frozen dessert. Add biscuits and chocolate and you can’t really go wrong.

I'm currently planning my second trip to look at Milton Keynes architecture (my first was as a moody geography student). A post-modern town famous for their modernist shopping centre and concrete cows; I'm looking forward to seeing what kind of ice cream they produce.

Udderlicious Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Monday, 15 August 2016

Go West

A day out looking at the Czech and Slovak Embassies and municipal town halls may not sound like most people's idea of fun, and my wife is no different. But when she discovered there was a soft launch at new Mexican restaurant, Killer Tomato, plus Brewdog's were releasing their live keg beer, the Ewing was much more amiable about schlepping all the way out to Shepherd Bush on a Sunday.

As much as I love them and need precious little encouragement to sit on my sofa eating them, it’s still pretty hard to get too excited about chips and dip. That said, it’s not cricket to start a Mexican meal without them and the one's served at Killer Tomato are the real deal; thick, a little oily, crisp and salty – just like the ones we were served at El Faralito, with a spicy salsa that made the Ewing bare her gums like a rabid chipmunk after eating it (not my finest hour - TE)

This time they were served with an impossibly smooth guacamole, flecked with fresh herbs and bright with lime and garlic, and served in a deceptively indecent portion. Alongside were Tommy's margaritas, nicely made with tequila, mezcal and the requisite salty rim

The brisket – a notoriously hard meat to get right - balls appeared as a trio of unremarkable-looking bread crumbed pucks but, as with the chips before, appearances can be deceptive. Packed inside each crisp carapace was a huge hunk of cow’s shoulder, the meat slow cooked and shredded to a soft, juicy tangle. The mayo alongside was also noteworthy, packing the promised spicy punch.

In fact, I liked it so much I used the bed of shredded cabbage the balls were served on to make a kind of deconstructed slaw, lest any were to go to waste – even more impressive/unappealing for my wife, due to the lack of cutlery.

From the taco selection the sticky chicken (served with the same poky mayo as the brisket balls) was good, as was the beer battered fish and crunchy slaw – served on a funky purple corn tortilla. The flavours of 'green chorizo with chips' were more unusual with the soft sausage filling - spiked with plenty of coriander and onion before being chargrilled - reminding me of the shami kebab that’s served at my local curry house.

The special taco, chosen by the Ewing, was a chicken skin crackling with feta and chopped green chillies. I have recently discovered the joy of making crispy chicken crackling at home, usually covered in Slap Yo Mama Creole seasoning and eaten, alongside a cold beer, straight out the oven. Of all the tacos we tried, I think this was my favourite. The perfect balance of crunchy, creamy and chilli spice and giving me inspiration when I concoct my next late night drinking snack.

There’s plenty to like at Killer Tomato (beyond the generous soft launch, featuring 50% off both food and drink); bold flavours, interesting ingredients and lovely staff (but not my hand or wild eyes - TE). Portions are decent, but I’d probably need a little more ballast after a few of their drinks, especially as our second cocktail - the summer cup with tequila, Argentinian 'champagne', agave and lime was particularly lethal. 

That said, the hungry (or drunk) also have the pick of bigger options on the menu with (rice-less) burritos (including pork belly and crackling), cheeseburger tacos, crayfish tostadas and weekday lunch deals with drinks and fries for a tenner. There's also a wicked looking ice-cream drowned sandwich for desert. Two of my favourite things on one plate.

To maintain inebriation levels we crossed the street to BrewDog (not far to skip and only moving vehicles to dodge - TE), to try their new interpretation of cask ale. After giving up cask a long time ago as, in their opinion 'more than half the cask ales served in the UK are substandard in terms of beer quality. We also felt the beers we were making at the time all suited keg dispense better and that cask ale was best suited to lower ABV session beers'.

Understandable if you are supplying to other outlets maybe, but doesn't show a great deal of faith in your own bars if you think they can't serve their own BrewDog beers on cask properly....

Despite this stance against cask (one shared by many other breweries recently) a quest began, helped by writer Pete Brown, towards creating what eventually became LIVE beer. A beer that would behave with the consistency of keg but have the character of cask and would produce a perfect pint every time.

In Brewdog's words 'LIVE beer is craft ale, conditioned in a key keg, Fermented without top pressure, then lightly centrifuged to remove hop debris the beer is packaged and allowed to ferment and condition inside the keg and is served on draft at 9.5°C through a sparkler... gently sparkling and 100% awesome'. The usual hyperbolic swagger we expect from the Scottish brewers, but does it match all the fuss? 

For me Dead Pony Club - the only beer that's currently been given the LIVE treatment - is a pretty solid session pale ale anyway, so it's hard to say this new twist added much. Serving it through the sparkler aerates the beer, giving a nice tight head and some body to the beer, but mutes it's hoppiness. Overall a refreshing, if not standout, pint which, as it's served slightly colder than cellar temp of 'normal' cask, is well suited to this weather.

BrewDog Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

When I was last in Australia my sister told the Ewing and I about the Coldstone Creamery, an ice cream parlour where deserts are customised with different 'mix ins' on a block of frozen granite, and where she and her friends had spent their gap year gorging on their icy creations. Now, I’ve eaten lots of ice cream pretty much all over the world, but suddenly visiting their Manly branch in the north of the city became a quest of almost mythical proportions.

After taking the ferry across the bay and stumbling around in the heat trying to find it (in the pre-smart phone days, and of course having no map and no idea…) eventually we asked a kindly chap, who seemed greatly amused to hear about our mission and helped direct us there.

Of course, the ice cream couldn’t live up to the expectations, but I think that’s somehow the point with these things, the thrill of the chase. And while Four Winters, our next stop, didn’t quite have the excitement of our Manly mission, the ice cream here - created by adding dry ice to the liquid ice cream base – is even more dramatic.

They had run out of waffle cones, a disappointment for Ewing and a rookie mistake for an ice cream parlour, but the tubs – a seasonal pina colada for my wife and kunefe for me – were still pretty good without. (I thought it was quite an icy concoction which had lost the lovely creaminess of real ice cream, but that's just my opinion of course - TE). I particularly liked the my choice, based on the Middle Eastern sweetmeat where layers of pastry are stuffed with fresh white cheese, topped with pistachios and soaked in fragrant syrup. 

Here, the freshly whipped vanilla ice cream base is mixed with crispy strands of syrup soaked noodles and sprinkled with fresh pistachios. While it may have been better with a cheesy centre, what wouldn't, it was an interesting combination of textures and flavours that made a nice change from chocolate or strawberry

Four winters  Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

As a reward for patiently poking around student halls and army barracks with me all afternoon, I took the Ewing to get a bun for her trunk, or more accurately a upmarket desert from Maitre Choux, French p√Ętissier  Joakim Prat's exclusive eclair shop in South Kensington.

The Ewing chose the  Pure Arabica Coffee, a glazed choux bun stuffed with coffee flavoured creme patissiere that has both added butter for texture and whipped cream for lightness. No surprises that it was pretty good, the coffee bringing bitter edge to the pillowy, sweet pastry.

As we are currently experiencing an Olympic medal rush in Rio how could I resist the hazelnut and milk chocolate treasure, an eclair that 'has it all'; filled with hazelnut praline and chocolate creme patissiere then coated in chopped hazelnuts and more chocolate and finished with gold dust. Gilding the lily has never tasted so delicious. Now, if chasing concrete and eating and drinking were Olympic sports....

Maitre Choux Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Thursday, 4 August 2016

Jelly and Ice Cream

In case you’ve been living in a cave, underwater and on the moon, you have scarcely failed to notice 2016 is already being dubbed 'the worst year in history'. Slightly hyperbolic perhaps, but with all the doom and gloom dominating the news recently, it's hard not to feel a bit down.

As a consequence, I’ve been banned from talking about politics at home, Brexit especially -  a courtesy I shall extend to the blog, although more to avoid a spittle-flecked keyboard - but, amongst the incredulousness over the next ludicrous revelation, it has also led to some mulling over the concept of identity. Do I feel a Londoner? a Southerner? English? British? European? a citizen of the world? and does it really matter anyway? 

Although I’m happy and (mostly) proud of where I come from, I can’t help feeling borders often seem rather arbitrary, and peoples’ behaviour towards them pretty primal. Yes, there may be practical and political concerns to their enforcement, but it seems to me easier to look outwards rather than embracing parochialism, especially in recent times.

Of course, if's perfectly possible to be patriotic and not partisan - so, as the old adage goes, if you can’t beat them join them. Which is how I found myself facing a strange sort of exposure therapy by taking a mini break in Southend, an area ranked number 6 in the most Eurosceptic areas of Britain in a recent YouGov poll.

Being an island, we have a long and proud fishing history and one of the oldest of these industries is cockling. Catching these slippery little molluscs has always been big business in Essex, as this Pathe newsreel from 1949 shows, and it's a tradition that still endures today. So, after checking in to our hotel, we set off on the three miles along the seafront to Leigh-on-Sea, home of the cockle sheds.

Interestingly the website plastered across the boat on the harbour, read www.cockle.eu, but the guy moving the sacks of cockles couldn't have sounded more Cockney if he tried. Something I found out after the Ewing decided to pop to the loo at the top of the harbour, I went for a nosy about, not realising the gate had been locked behind me...

Luckily, after nearly being scooped up with the cockle shells, they soon heard my shouts and saved me from an imminent crushing. After a second chiding from my wife, who was beginning to worry I'd fallen in the drink, we finally reached the sheds in desperate need of a drink.

Osborne Bros is the place to come, with the freshly-caught fish being boiled on the adjacent 'Cockle Shed Row' and served from their cafe housed in a 18th century stable mews which was used to house the horses delivering ale to the the Crooked Billet. The pub is still there, and still owns the outdoor courtyard, meaning you can wash your crustacea down with a cheeky pint.

As well as the cockles, eels have been a popular fish in these parts since Victorian times. Mainly as they were some of the only aquatic life that could survive in the heavily polluted water of the Thames estuary. Originally cheaper than meat, they were soon being used as the fillings for pies that were being sold, along with mash and parsley liquor, at the black and white-tiled shops that were opening all over the east end. But more of that later.

I'll eat a lot of things, but lumps of cold fish in aspic, still in the shape of the bowl it was turned out in, weren't really doing it for me. Perversely rollmops, lumps of cold fish marinaded in sweet vinegar, are a favourite, so we chose a platter with a couple of those; joined by cockles - doused in lashings of malt vinegar - small shell on prawns; and fancy skewers of anchovies and black olives (which, I'm pretty sure were not a Victorian favourite). Add a pint of Hopback Citra and it made a perfect al fresco lunch.

Well, it would for mere morsels, but I was with the Ewing, so we ended eneded up going back, twice, for more treats including buttered bread rolls, which I stuffed with tiny prawns and cocktail sauce for a DIY sarnie, another pint of shell-on prawns and a plate of freshly shucked oysters. A proper treat and less than 30 quid, all in, for an ample feast.

As the title of the blog suggests, you can't have jelly with out ice cream; and while we managed to skip the eels, we had walked past four separate branches of local ice cream purveyors, Rossis, on the way to the cockles, meaning an ice desert on the way home was fait accompli.

And not just one ice cream, but two - the first being their traditional, and best-selling, vanilla from their branch in the Arches. It's offered either whipped or scooped, but who can resist a (not) whippy? There's something wonderfully nostalgic about fluffy swirls of soft serve, piled up in a cheap wafer cone and this was a cut above your usual 'stop me and buy one' vans of my youth,

Their second bestseller is the lemon ice only served in tubs, as it has the tendency to slip off cones, said the stern sign inside their wonderful art deco Pavilion branch. It's a curiously refreshing whippy/sorbet that wasn't really needed on the overcast day we visited, but was still very much appreciated - yes, I know you may think the palm tree-studded vista above looks like the Santa Monica boardwalk, but squint and you can see North Kent.

We were going to stop at the recommended  Oldham's in Westcliffe for fish and chips on the way home, but my ocd tendencies (and laziness) weren't enamoured with the inland detour, meaning that our route would take us back on ourselves, and so we headed back to The Last Post for a beer before hitting Van Looy's for our fish supper (and two wallies).

As the chippy also happened to be next to the hotel, we picked up our dinner and headed back to our room, cold cans of Red Stripe from the offie in hand, to watch the rest of Today at Wimbledon. The fish was good - freshly cooked, skin on (the southern way) cod - served with decent chips and an extra gherkin, and it cost just £3.50. Great guy behind the fryer, too, as well as an entertaining regular who enjoyed attempting to converse with the Ewing in German.

if you should be in Rome, live in the Roman manner, and in this neck of the woods that means pie and mash for breakfast. Fortuitously, as with our dinner the night before, we found Robin's Pie and Mash on the road adjacent to our hotel.

In scenes scarily reminiscent to today, the mid 50s saw a swift rise in rent in the eastend of London leading to a lot of factories moving out of town, taking with them the local working class population in pursuit of jobs. Add the rise of convenience food and American fast food imports and plain old pies just didn't cut it any more, leading to the slow decline of these once veritable institutions.

But proper pie and mash shops (never restaurants), with their white tiles, mirrored walls and marble tabletops, have somehow clung on to remain one of the last bastions of the East End/Essex borders - although the sawdust-covered floors, used to gather up the spat-out eel bones, have thankfully been replaced with something a little easier to mop. And bucking the trends of the last few decades, Robin's has been expanding to open new branches as people seek to return to the food of their forebears.

Despite my Grandad Alan being born in Romford, I haven't had much experience of the good stuff and was eagerly awaiting our experience. Going with 'one pie, one mash, and liquor' and a healthy dousing of homemade chilli vinegar, the resulting plate exceeded my, admittedly pretty low, expectations. The pie particularly stood out for praise, with it's crispy lid and pleasing soggy bottom (apparently custom for the bottom to be suet and the top short), and filled with rich mince in a sticky gravy. You can keep your gummy parsley liquor, though.

Our visit finished with a walk down Southend Pier which, at 1.3 miles miles, is the longest pleasure pier in the world. Wandering down it, I felt like I was on the long road to nowhere, pretty apt for this strangely remote part of the world. If you look at a map of Southend it's quite fascinating - the A127, going west to London and then virtually nothing past Shoeburyness to the east.

And while I can't definitively say I felt any more or less English after our few days away, I can say that I felt at home. Whatever that might mean. As native Essex boys, from up the road in Colchester, Blur once wisely said:

And into the sea go pretty England and me
This is a low, but it won't hurt you
When you are alone it will be there with you
Finding ways to stay solo