Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Big Easy like Sunday afternoon

As the #brutaltour rumbles to its concrety conclusion (fear not, the promised round up is coming in the New Year), one of the best things about it - apart from all the wonderfully hulking buildings - is the chance to see some erstwhile unexplored corners of town. And a Sunday visit to look at the brilliant red brick of the World's End Estate in Chelsea meant I could finally take the Ewing to the original branch of the Big Easy, stalwart of the Kings Road, for their bottomless Sunday brunch.

As well as the lure of limitless (with a few, sensible, caveats) alcohol, they also offer the option of the 'pig gig' - limitless barbecued meat and sides - or the 'lobster festival' - a pound of lobster served in the shell with lashings of garlic butter; mixed with mayo and stuffed in a fluffy brioche bun, or chopped up and baked with macaroni cheese.

After a frustratingly thirsty pause after being seated, we finally started with a glass of bubbles - Big Easy brew, house wine and frozen mojito slushies are also available with  brunch, and can be mix and matched throughout you meal for maximum hangover potential.

Interior wise it's a comforting sort of mishmash, reminding me of somewhere between the original Chicago Rib Shack in Knightsbridge, where my parents used to take us for a special treat back in the 80s, and a cosy French bistro; albeit one with a pig mural painted over the walls.

Ordering the Pig Gig brought a tray of barbecue chicken, baby back ribs, slaw pit beans, fries and fresh cornbread muffins. Like the decor, the food reminded me of meals from my childhood; soft meat bathed in a sticky sweet sauce. Authentic 'cue? Probably not, but still pretty tasty in a pleasingly nostalgic way and I managed two portions (with a little help from a friend).

Slaw (we seem to have lost the 'cole' since I was a kid) and beans were decent, but the fries were more like chunky oven chips. A childhood staple I'm not so wistful about. Best of the sides was the sweet, crumbly muffin; like having pudding with your dinner. The perks of being an adult.

The Ewing chose the lobster - she pimped it to a pound and three quarter specimen for an extra fiver - served with fries, although ours failed to materialise, and a side salad. A decent specimen, if a touch woolly, that involved much concentrated cracking to extract every morsel of crustacean. All while I attempted a one-sided conversation across the table. A standard Sunday, really.

Earlier in the afternoon, as we sat down at the table, the Ewing noted the sheer number of the fuse boxes and control panels on the wall, with their alarming number of buttons and wires. A prescient comment as, just as we were finishing our food, the fire alarm started up, followed five minutes later by two trucks (by half the crew of the Chelsea fire station. 

Throughout the thrilling episode we continued to doggedly munch on our remaining ribs - reasoning we were close enough to the window to make a quick escape should we see actual flames - and it was faintly reassuring to see that the guys in flouro stripes looked initially as bamboozled at the proliferation of switches and dials as we had, even if they were soon quick to identify and fix the fault (and get a round of applause for doing so, well done them - TE).

It was at this point - with the alarm still blaring but now with a bit of added eye candy, to distract us - the cocktails began to flow much quicker, and unbidden, from the bar. During one overlap between rounds I even managed to top off my frozen mojito with proscecco. Praise be for welcome distractions (and multiple alcoholic drinks dispensed from a slushy machine).

Multiple mojitos also left us vulnerable when the pudding menu appeared and the lure of the S'mores fondue proved irresistible. A cast iron dish filled with a raft of burnished marshmallows, bobbing on a lake of molten chocolate and served with a tin of graham crackers - the thinner, rectangular American cousin of the digestive - for dipping. This was very simple, very sweet and very good.

Service, at 12.5 per cent, is included, but that didn't stop our waiter - competent enough, if a little distracted throughout our meal - asking if the Ewing wanted to add another gratuity for him as the 'the first one is shared amongst all the staff'. An irritating, but apparently common occurrence here and one that even befell Grace Dent when she reviewed it in the Evening Standard; she wasn't a fan of thee practise (neither was I - TE) or the food... My tip? Come for the cocktails, crustaceans and 'cue but double check that bill.

The Big Easy Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

Wycombe Bites - Heidrun

Like the old adage about buses, we’ve seen two ‘craft beer’ bars springing up within a stone’s throw of each other in Wycombe in the latter half of this year. Which is pretty revelatory for a town who’s drinking culture was until recently (like many other towns in England) dominated by ‘Spoons, Stella and Strongbow – the very beverage that bought me and my wife together, in the pub garden of the Antelope, July 2008.

The first of these to open was Heidrun, which, I presume, is named after the goat in Norse mythology who consumes the foliage of the Læraðr tree and produces mead for the warriors who have died in battle. I’ve yet to see any mead on their regularly changing beverage list, although they do always have Thistly Cross elderflower cider, which I first got into on a trip to Glasgow and remains dangerously drinkable. They also have a cute little courtyard garden that somehow manages to invoke a feeling of the South of France rather than South Bucks on a warm evening.

Inside is bijou but equally swish, with white and green tiled booths and a central horseshoe-shaped bar with stools covered in powder grey suede; soon, no doubt, also to be covered with stale beer and sticky fingerprints. The bar itself is dominated by their 20 keg and cask taps which regularly change - ergo so does the beer menu, which seems to have just been reprinted every time I visit as I seem to be perpetually hunting down the most up-to-date one.

One thing you can be sure of, once you’ve got hold of it, is there’s going to be some good beers listed. It's not just a mecca for hop heads either, as they offer a large selection of wines and cocktails from (very good) spritzes and sours through to Manhattans and margaritas and bloody marys to wash down brunch at the weekend.

Some of the keg beers I’ve sampled so far include; Burning Sky l’ete; Mikkeler's Ich Bin Berliner (the raspberry version); Buxton and Omnipollo's Lemon Meringue Pie and Thornbridge Lukas; all solid summery choices. There's normally some Kernel, Beavertown, and Magic Rock on offer and I’ve also drunk a lot of Siren, including Pompomocello, their Proteus IPA and the delightful Caribbean Chocolate Cake stout.

Cask beer, following a theme in this town, is less successful; a friend found their half of Brighton Bier pretty much undrinkable while the Ewing’s Arbor Umm Bingo and Stealth's Jaipur were served flat and too warm, making it taste incredibly sweet and syrupy. All beers, regardless of type or method of dispensation, are reserved in the same stemmed glasses, which might also upset the purist.

One thing that definitely won’t disappoint are the freshly baked sausage rolls. A giant cylinder of juicy fennel seed-flecked pork wrapped a carapace of crisp pastry, served with a homemade beer ketchup. Originally the aforementioned ketchup was more like a bowl of Heinz tomato soup, something I actually quite enjoyed, but it seems to be getting a little more substantial on each visit. The magnificent sausage roll itself remains peerless even if it is a proper knife and fork number, taking it out of true bar snack territory.

The scotch egg is equally swanky, coming encased in black pudding and served with mustard mayo and watercress. It looks very tasty, though - even for a vowed egg-avoider like myself. Oeuf fancier, Stealth certainly made quick work of it.

There is, however, a notable absence of crisps and scratchings, although you can get a tumbler of warm nuts for four quid. As nice as they are (and they are nice, as I got to sample a complimentary taster during one afternoon spent propping up the bar), I’d be just as happy with some posh crisps (preferable Pipers chorizo flavour, which I've discovered taste exactly like a saveloy). 

The rest of the menu is also on the spendier side for Wycombe, although they are clearly trying to lure in a different calibre of clientele than most of the surrounding establishments. I’m not sure how many takers there are for the £28 steak or the 18 quid pork chop, but the burger - at 13 quid, served with good parmesan truffle fries and more of their beer ketchup  – is decent; fluffy brioche bun, pink and juicy patty and lots of pickles.

The capable kitchen are equally adept at deserts and I would recommend the churros, served with a salted caramel dip. Even the Ewing liked these, despite her antipathy for the tubular doughnuts they serve in Spain, which was unfortunate for me as I had to share. I’m also still awaiting the baked custard tart with poached rhubarb to make it back on the menu.

As if beer and sausage rolls wasn't enough they have recently started offering beer flights - six quid for four quarter pints. If you really want to go for it you can go flying with wings, adding a portion of their buffalo wings to the mix for a tenner. You should definitely do that.

So, while maybe not quite in the league of Aegir - the ale-brewer of the gods who served his beer from a cauldron given to him by Thor, complete with glasses that never ran empty and parties that lasted all winter long (which is pretty much all the time in Scandinavia) - Heidrun is still pretty good for a new kid (boom) on the block.

Wednesday, 16 November 2016

Boat Drinks

How We Got Here: it’s three o’clock in the morning; one figure is slumped, fully clothed, on the sofa. A second slumps, fully clothed, on the bed - head hanging off the end and feet resting on the pillow. Another has passed out after eating an entire tuna pizza while watching the X Factor results show on catch up, while the fourth listens to the cacophony of snoring and wonders how on earth to piece the night’s events together to capture the joy of a Sunday session while retaining some shreds of dignity for those involved.

Yes, that forlorn fourth figure – with the beginnings of a hangover and an industrial case of heartburn – was me. So here goes…

It had all started twelve hours earlier, at the Boathouse in Christchurch which, as the name suggests, affords views out across The river Stour. We were there for a leisurely lunch and perhaps a drink or two, owing to the fact we all had the unusual prescience to book the following day off work.

It wouldn’t be Sunday without a bloody mary, although the ones served here had horseradish and Tabasco in such sinus-clearing doses my eyes tear up a little when I think about it. Better were the double Hendricks, served in Spanish-style balloon glasses with Fevertree tonic, cucumber and juniper berries.

Wood smoked mackerel with pickled cucumber and horseradish mayo was a simple and unassuming plate of tried and tested flavours that reminded me how much I still love what was a lunchtime staple growing up - although my mum would have chosen the peppered kind and served it with a few carrot sticks, a handful of crisps and maybe a squirt of salad cream.

In contrast, the salmon tartare and smoked trout with sesame and cucumber was a real looker, but what it gained in finesse it seemed to lose in flavour and would have benefited from the same judicious hand with the seasoning that had been let loose on the tomato juice for the bloody marys. 

Scallops were spot on (and should be for nine quid); classically grilled with garlic and parsley and served in the half shell, needing nothing more than a crust or two of bread to dip in their buttery juices.

Sunday afternoon calls for roast beef and their meat while not very pink, was commendably tender and came bathed in generous amounts of good gravy. Cabbage, with bacon and cream, was good, as were the spuds and yorkie. Nothing to worry Mum, but a solid effort. Roast beef also calls for red wine and, after sampling three bottles of it, I can recommend the pinot noir.

The towering Boathouse burger with texas sauce and jalepeno slaw was also more than serviceable; while not up there with the best it was a valiant effort with the well-seasoned meat topped with properly melted cheese and crisp bacon that the photo does scant justice to. They also let me swap normal spuds for fluffy sweet potato fries, which made me very happy.

The lowlight of the afternoon was finding out my favourite, the summer pudding, was off the menu. But they made up some ground by offering sticky toffee pudding instead, and gained another bonus point by letting us swap vanilla ice cream for blackcurrant and clotted cream flavour, The Ewing was close to the 'single wafer-thin mint moment', but still manged to scoff two scoops of passion fruit sorbet to herself.

We also had coffee - in the form of espresso martinis. Three rounds of them. And while they weren't quite a match for my friend Emily J's, a caffeinated cocktail maestro, these were commendable - even if every round came adorned with a confusingly different configuration of straws/coffee beans/cocoa powder decoration. 

At some point, after the Ewing went to visit the loos, a dog - Max the terrier - appeared at our table. Which proved an entertaining distraction, even if he was just as intelligible as we were by that point.  And our waitress, with the patience (and personality) befitting a saint, later turned up in several selfies - after she had kindly cadged a roll up for us from one of the bar staff.

And, as by now it was already well past dinner time, we ordered our first pizza of the evening; a hawaiian for the benefit of the Ewing and the Monkey, washed down with a round of pornstar martinis, complete with champagne shot.

Which lead to calling for the (not unsizable) bill jumping in a taxi (almost accompanied by our new buddy Max) to Walkabout, followed by Jaegerbombs, vodka, Grindr and an abortive attempt to break in to a roof-top party through someone’s kitchen, the Ewing falling asleep, a kebab, a pizza, a group hug with the Ewing’s new friends and a cab back to watch the X Factor on catch-up. Which is right back where our story begins…

Many thanks for the Monkey and Uni for making this story happen. Don't ever change.

Tuesday, 8 November 2016

Snappy Birthday at the Crab House

As Phil and Kirsty have spent the last decade telling us every time you switch on Channel Four, it’s all about positioning. And as far as locations go - with its spot on the edge of a lagoon, overlooking Chesil Beach and the Atlantic Ocean beyond - the location of the Crab House can’t really be beat.  All of which made it the perfect choice for this year's Official Birthday Dinner.

Their ethos is based around sourcing local ingredients, with their eponymous crabs being caught in the English Channel and their fish all landed in local waters within a 40 mile radius of the restaurant. The Portland oysters come from even closer to home, being grown from seed on the oyster beds that run adjacent to the restaurant. Meaning you can take an preprandial stroll along the shore and get a look at your dinner before you sit down to eat. 

As well as farming their own oysters, these guys have their own beer Crab House beer – an ale and a stout, brewed in conjunction with Hunter’s Brewery in Ipplepen, Devon. The former was a decent enough common-garden ale, while the latter was lighter than a normal stout, with a sweet smokiness that was perfect for seafood. A Picpoul, one of my favourites with fish (or with anything, I'm not fussy), was chosen from a comprehensive and well-priced list that included fizz from the Furleigh Estate in nearby Bridport.

The warm loaf of complimentary bread was just like the traditional malted granary my Mum used to buy for us as a treat when I was a kid, which I would eat in doorsteps, spread with an equal thickness of butter. Here it was served with the far more modern accompaniments of balsamic and olive oil and was only hampered by 'slices' still being attached at the bottom; meaning that trying pull them apart, combined with the very friable crust, meant a breadcrumb blizzard that soon covered us all in a fine crispy dust.

I shotgunned the Ewing to first dibs on starters and chose the Black Cow vodka-cured sea trout with fennel, cucumber and lemon from the specials board. All my English teachers would, I’m sure, be very disappointed to see me describe it as pretty as a picture, but if the cliché fits, wear it. And when the only criticism is you could have easily eaten twice as much – sublimity does not always equal satiation - you know things are off to a good start.

I'm not sophisticated enough to care much for oysters, but the Ewing loves the salty globules of wobbly mollusc and she very much enjoyed her sweet, plump Portlands, served raw on the half shell. Those with my aversion to their slippery natural state might prefer them grilled and here you can order them topped with pesto and parmesan or country style with bacon and cream.

I always think of red mullet as one of those ‘cheffy’ ingredients - like gooseberries or game or globe artichokes - that seem to crop up with wild abandon in recipe books and cookery shows, but are sadly absent from the shelves at Tescos.  So after seeing it on the menu -  albeit served with the unseasonably summery flavours of red pepper, goats cheese and basil stuffing - it made my main an easy choice.

Overall it was very pleasant - if all rather delicate flavour-wise, considering the bold ingredients involved – but the enormous amount of tiny bones made each mouthful feel somewhat hazardous. Especially as I still have flashbacks to a fish bone related incident in Venice that involved a makeshift rescue operation involving a hotel table lamp and some tweezers.

A better choice bone-wise was my Mum’s skate - from the specials board - which was served as a central tranche of a larger specimen, rather than a whole wing of a smaller fish. Beautifully cooked, served with a punchy chorizo, smoked paprika and spring onion-flecked sauce, the pearly flakes of fish slipped from the cartilaginous bones with ease.

The Ewing's monkfish curry successfully balanced toothsome nuggets of delicate tail with a deep and fragrant sauce of plate-licking deliciousness (she just about managed to restrain herself). Add fluffy lemon and coriander scented rice and the obligatory poppadom and you had the surprise hit of the evening.

Sam also chose from the specials board and, lacking any pictures and a memory like the netting at the bottom of an oyster bed, I'm going to go out on a limb and say it was turbot. Whatever fish it was, it was a fine-looking specimen that had been roasted on the bone and served simply with new buttery spuds and seasonal veg.

After numerous awkward moments trying to swallow snotty whelks or hairy pig’s feet I’ve pretty much given up ordering strange things on menus, but the temptation after seeing cucumber panna cotta with strawberry soup on the desert menu was too great to resist.

Of course, I should have known better; while the cucumber flavour wasn’t too odd and the strawberry ‘soup’ was pleasingly sharp and refreshing, the panna cotta - to match its colour - was set to the consistency of a tennis ball and the flavours were far more redolent of a balmy summer then the encroaching chill of early October.

Better was the two-tone chocolate mousse with a crunchy carapace of bitter chocolate giving way to a light and milky centre and accompanied by a couple of plump, purple figs soaked in coffee. Perhaps a plate would have been better than a wooden board, but perhaps I’m being grumpy. A slice of almond tart also more than passed muster, evidenced by lack of photos due to its swift demolition.

Of course if you have fish this fresh, a deft hand in the kitchen and a more than competent front of house, you could be eating dinner from a damp portakabin in a lay-by on the M11 and it would still taste good. But add in this view, looking across the oyster beds as the sun slips over the horizon, and everything seems to taste, just like the oysters, just that little bit sweeter.