Wednesday, 28 September 2016

A taste of home: E Pelliccis

There’s a kind of special moment you sometimes get when you’re on holiday -  maybe it’s when you’re walking through a fug of incense in a backstreet market; or squeezed in a thrumming side-street bar as the evening kicks off; or sitting in sleepy town square, watching locals smoking and playing chess – and the magic suddenly strikes you and you think if only it was like this at home.

Of course being on holiday also means you conveniently forget that haggling over your weekly Tesco’s shop, or being pinned up against the wall by the hordes at your local when all you really wanted was a quiet after-work pint, would seem completely insufferable when you’re back in the real world. And who really remembers how to play chess, anyway.

Well, I had my own moment, on the Bethnal Green Road of all exotic locations, just a few weeks ago. A moment that’s so perfect that you feel like you’re in a book and you don’t ever want the story to ever end; and all before breakfast.

Well, more accurately, for breakfast. But while I was waiting for my fry up and drinking my way through the second cup of thick, malty tea I was already thinking – as I idly read the advert for a commemorative birthday party for the Kray twins that was stuck in the window  - that as moment’s come, they don’t get much better than this. And better still, I was at home.

Well, more accurately, on the Bethnal Green Road. At E Pelliccis, the celebrated café that has been in the same family since it was built in 1900 and who have fed everyone from the aforementioned Krays (who often ran their ‘business’ from here) to Henry Cooper to most of the cast of EastEnders. The bright yellow Vitrolite frontage and Art Deco-style marquetry panelled interior remain untouched - leading to the building being Grade II listed a decade ago which means that, like my favourite caff, the Regency Café in Pimlico, when you step through the door it’s hard to tell if it’s 2016 or 1960.

We, of course, were here for the full English (which come sans beans as standard, so remember to add them in if you’re a legume fan) mine without egg but with a wonderful puck of homemade bubble, a pan-fried potato and veg cake with the vegetal funk from the leftover boiled cabbage and broccoli. One of the few things, the others being sausage sandwiches and corned beef hash, that I prefer with brown sauce. The rest of it was pretty spot on, too, especially the fried mushrooms, which were as fine as any I’ve had.

Here the sauce is in squeezy bottles, the marge thickly spread on your toast 'do you want another slice, gels?’, and you can get a fried slice with a fried egg on it; surely the key evidence in the case against having to show the calorie counts on restaurant menus.

It's also worth trying to leave room for a slice of the bread pudding for afters, you can always get it to takeaway. (Also checkout Percy Ingle bakery a couple of doors down, the only place apart from Greg’s, I’ve ever seen my beloved Tottenham cake).

Even better than the food is the service, which revolves around non-stop banter (in the traditional sense, when it meant being both quick-witted and good-natured) from both the customers and the staff. My favourite part was the conversation that started up as we went to pay.  ‘Gels, I’ve been reading that Lady Chatterley's Lover. She might have been all prim and proper but - I don’t mean to be rude, gels - she still let him give her one’.

It’s an wonderful microcosm of London life and a slice of our city that makes me feel very proud; proving you don't need fancy foreign climes, just a good cup of splosh served with a friendly smile, to get that little magical shiver down your spine. Yours for 70p, but the feeling's priceless.

E. Pellicci Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Thursday, 22 September 2016

Sunday service: Blacklock

While it might be our national dish, the roast dinner is notoriously tricky to get right.  For a start, everyone knows that Mum’s make the roast, and each family has its own particular foibles and quirks. When I was growing up Sunday dinner (served at 6 o’clock) always came with cauliflower cheese and roast parsnips, and yorkies (my Dad made the best), were only ever served with beef. The Ewing’s Mum served both mash and roasties with the meat - a double carb concept I still struggle to get my head around.

Which all conspired to make going to Soho’s Blacklock on a Sunday, despite their reputation for the best roasts in town, a gamble. Not only that, during the rest of the week they specialise in chops and, despite my solidly English credentials, I think I might actually prefer gnawing a chop to a Sunday dinner. Yeah, I know.

Anyway, as it was mid-September and we were eagerly anticipating a change in the weather – before, of course, we knew a freak heatwave was bringing the hottest temperatures of the year - the Ewing managed to grab the very last table. This was a victory I feared would be pyrrhic when we saw the weather forecast and began to question the wisdom of sitting in a dark basement eating platters of red meat and potatoes swamped in rich gravy.

I may as well spoil the surprise by saying now, even if the only remaining table was in Hades and I had to cross the River Styx to get to that first bloody mary, I would make the same choice again every time. As it was, we were shown to one of the best tables in the house - positioned below the skylights in the pavement - although anywhere seemed like a good table when we saw the hordes of people that had already been turned away by five past twelve.

The heat did result in one concession, swapping a bloody mary for a gin and juice as I was craving something more refreshing - which also, I convinced myself, came under the vague guise of healthiness (yes, somebody went off piste, this was not what we agreed before hand - TE). The Ewing’s BM was exemplary, but an abundance of the most pleasingly shaped ice cubes in the glass left her wanting a bit more of the beefy (a preface of things to come) beverage.

You can order spit shanks of bone marrow covered in a snow of freshly grated horseradish, or giant wood-grilled scallops with bacon and peas – as the guys on the table next to us did, to our jealous looks – but we went straight for the ‘all in’, a platter piled up with all three roast meats, gravy and all the trimmings (something we had agreed a week before our visit after studying the menu together - TE). As it’s hard to break a habit, I also chose the cauli cheese, more for nostalgia’s sake as even I wasn’t worrying that we wouldn’t have enough food to keep us going.

This was a roast any mother would have been proud of, in fact, it was almost equal to my own mothers, right down to the cubes of not-quite-crackled crackling (one thing she was never very good at), which were completely delicious nevertheless. There was even a random pork rib on top of our mountain of food, which reminded me of being allowed to gnaw at the bones in the kitchen as a treat if I helped carve the meat.

The pork looked a little pallid against the blush red meat, but was deceptively juicy and made a fine start  to the meal (I usually follow the ‘best til last’ method, while the Ewing goes in head first -  (in case I die in the process, fancy dying before you ate your favourite thing - TE)). Round two saw the lamb, both our favourite of all the meats, with a transcendental dish of cauliflower cheese, with a four cheese sauce, and a rainbow display of carrots. Finally I moved on to the roast beef, which was good but not quite as good as the lamb, which I ate with a very fine Yorkshire pudding, perfect green beans and a lick of good horseradish sauce.

While I’m probably the only person in the world who isn’t really bothered about roasties, these were very good - although with the vast amounts I had already eaten it meant I still lived up to my nick name of ‘Amy One Potato’, which, as you can see above, did make me feel rather sad. 

Stealthily (or probably when I was probably messing around with filters on Instagram), the Ewing managed her trio of spuds plus my remaining pair, meaning we only ended up leaving the gnawed rib bone. Believe me, I did try to eat that too.

One thing neither of us wanted to do without was pudding, here you get one choice, white chocolate cheesecake with seasonal fruit, which made ordering easy. Served up at the table from a large earthenware dish, this was a wonderful cheesecake that had possibly the most rustic buttery biscuit base I have encountered - you can see the errant rubbly chunks that sprinkled over the top. The accompanying berries were both sweet and tart and I particularly enjoyed that they were served in a Shippam's potted meat dish.

Clearly, we were both in love; with the food, our waiter - who had the Ewing in stitches while dishing out our desert  (oh the staff were dreamy, such good fun - TE) - and the fact they bought toothpicks, for our chops, with the the bill - which, at £80 including tip, was not too considerable at all for all the food and drink we had consumed.

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

Still there's always room for a little more... and it’s at this point I would like to apologise to my wife, for a whole litany of misdemeanours, but on this occasion for making her, after our gluttonous display, walk around the corner to Gelupo in an attempt to fulfil my ice cream-in-every-blog-post-during-the-summer. 

Not only that, I also made her eat our double scoop of bonet - with chocolate and caramel - and ricotta and sour cherry pretty much single-handedly, only stepping in to help her finish the last mouthful of cone. From the couple of licks I had, the ice cream remains peerless as ever. One of the only things that my mother (whose best attempts at pudding when I was growing up mostly stretched to ‘yogurt or fruit’) can’t quite yet compete with. Still, she does buy me tubs of ‘Oh My Apple Pie’ Ben and Jerry's when I visit, which is quite alright with me.

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

Saturday, 10 September 2016

Wycombe Bites: Big Yellow Taxi

For a long time the only curries you could reliably get around my neck of the woods were the familiar North Indian/Pakistani/Bangladeshi itinerations. Your common garden tikkas and kormas and bhunas, served with bread baked in the tandoor and a side order of seekh kebabs and lamb chops. All very tasty stuff – my favourite curry house would always find room to squish you in, even once memorably on a busy Friday night, on a table that was halfway in the broom cupboard. Don’t worry, even with the complimentary fruity shots at the end of the meal there were still no Boris Becker-esque shenanigans.

While I would never turn down a lamb dhansak with a peshwari naan, I always missed having a Sri Lankan/South Indian nearby. The kind of place that swapped the flock wall paper and sitar music for Formica and the smell of frazzled curry leaves. Even if one particularly hot kingfish curry I had in Bournemouth made me go deaf for the evening.

Which is why I was so excited to find Wycombe had its own little café, tucked away on the wrong side of the tracks, where they served English breakfasts until lunchtime and then a selection of homemade fluffy idli, crisp dosa and uttapam, string hoppers and puttu, served in metal trays accompanied by fragrant mutton, prawn and chicken curries, coconut chutney and fiery sambal.

The first time I visited was early on a Sunday lunchtime in the depths of winter, where we ate mutton rolls and perfect masala dosa washed down with fluorescent bottles of Nelli Crush, the famous Sri Lankan gooseberry flavoured soft drink that's sweeter than Shirley Temple, covered in honey, aboard the Good Ship Lollipop.

I became obsessed. I couldn’t believe that there was somewhere so close and so cheap - more food than we could comfortably finish for little more than a fiver a head – that served such authentic, and delicious, food. Yes, it had it’s down sides, erratic opening hours, erratic availability of dishes, no loos, no license (we’d get around the last two by going to the pub first and stopping by the pub on the way back)  forgetting your order, giving you things you hadn’t ordered (spontaneity and the element of surprise is key here - TE) making the bill up as they had lost your order (thankfully, always to the customer’s advantage).

From the 'short eats' section of the menu, the Sri Lankan version of snacks and starters, the yoghurt vadai  - home made 'doughnuts' made with urad lentils, served with yogurt and herbs - were recommended. You could also have your vadai with sambal - a kind of vegetable curry, or just on their own. Confusingly they also served masala vadai, which are made with toor lentils and are shaped more like a flying saucer.

The chciken 65, a Sri Lankan classic, was also good, the deep-fried chunks of chicken, strewn with curry leaves and onion and served with lime wedges; as was the veggie version, made with cauliflower. And the chilli paneer, and the pepper mutton...(let's be frank, everything is good, better than good, it's delicious - TE)

In fact, it was all great, from the peerless mutton biryani, the paneer with spinach, the delicate rava dosa - made from semolina - and the outstanding kingfish curry, served with puttu - cylinders of steamed coconut rice, or string hoppers - steamed nests of fine rice noodles. 

It was also good to see some more unfamiliar items such as the Kotthu, whose name translates as 'chopped', the name deriving from the sound the large knives that are used to mix it make against the metal hotplate. It's a dish that's normally prepared at the roadside from leftover roti bread, eggs, vegetables and meat. Maybe not the best looking dish on the menu but delicious after a few beers. (EVERYTHING IS DELICIOUS AFTER A FEW BEERS - TE)

Of course, after a while the glitter wore off a little. My waistline started to rebel (even though I had to schlep across town for my fix), my wallet started to rebel (even at these prices, I was getting a pretty expensive habit) my digestion started to rebel (I even began to crave mashed potato over mutton biryani).

Weekly (or bi-weekly) visits became less frequent as complacency took hold. Although I still liked the feeling it was always there to satiate the need whenever the urge for insanely hot curries, washed down with insanely sweet drinks, took hold.

That was until one Friday evening in front of the TV, when I remarked to the Ewing that I quite fancied a dosa for brunch the following day. On opening a well-known online food delivery app, so I could plan my choice in anticipation of our visit (yes, I do frequently do this), I experienced a moment of blind panic as 'closed down' in foreboding red writing appeared next to their name.

Don't it always seem to go that you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone (very Joni Mitchell - TE)... I was immediately bereft. After a dark few minutes, where I thought about all the times I'd blown them out for a takeaway pizza or sweet and sour ribs washed down with a big bag of prawn crackers, I calmed down enough to think rationally and Google the address. They hadn't gone, just changed ownership and had a menu revamp and name change. Lentils, served in a multitude of different ways, were back on the menu. It was all going to be ok.

Well, better than ok, actually as the new menu features the rocket dosa, which is pretty much identical to the ordinary dosa, but just looks a lot more dramatic. It's an item that's often found on children's menus and makes a far better choice than Bernard Matthews turkey Jetters when it comes to aeronautical-shaped foodstuffs.

I was also pleased to see the kingfish curry with rice hoppers is still on the set menu, although the rice noodles are now pink, coming from being made from roasted red rice. On this occasion it was also served with a wonderful sweet and sour beetroot curry, that I've sadly never seen since. Maybe one to try at home with our allotment beetroots, that seem to spiral out of control each year.

I've never, yet managed to sample the squid, but the prawn curry, served above with spinach and coconut and cashew nut rice, is commendably generous with the crustacean and yours for six quid. I find the spinach (and sag paneer) here a little thin but the rice - not usually my favourite accompaniment - is always buttery and fluffy, which is far more than can be said for my efforts.

They also now do appams, which according to the menu are served on Wednesdays and Thursdays, but I wouldn't bet on it.... We managed to get lucky on an early dinner visit and enjoyed the plain appams served with a sambal  made with dried fish and chilles and the coconut hoppers, spread with a sweet coconut milk jam, that made a soothing pudding after all the salt and spice.

They also serve what I think has become my favourite weekend (read hangover) breakfast. Forget bacon sarnies (WHAAAT??? - TE) and McMuffins, the choly bhatura - with a can of Rubicon - is where it's at. The choly part is a chickpea curry while the bhatura is a puffy fried brad to soak it (and the alcohol) up with. The steamed idlis - shaped like little flying saucers - are also a great, but not as good as the chilli idlis which are chopped up and stir fried with lots of spices.

As usual when eating my dinner, I've saved the best for last. This is maybe not the best picture of a dish I have eaten almost every time I've been here, but the mutton curry with freshly made Keralan bread is my favourite dish that they serve. 

Here it's with the veechu roti, or handkerchief bread, so named because it's rolled very thin before being fried on a hot griddle. The normal parotta is slightly thicker, but still breaks apart in flaky buttery layers that soak up the fragrant gravy that is rich with the flavours of black pepper and fennel seeds. A must try dish.

So what's the moral of this story. Don't take things for granted?  Support local businesses? Eat more curry? Well, all of the above, really. And when it leads to night's like the one's above, it's a place I hope we don't lose.