Thursday, 29 December 2016

Uncle John's Barbecue and Beer Crawl

Of all the adventures on our annual Visit to the North, I think our Leeds-based pub crawl, accompanied by my Uncle John, is my favourite. Not only is he eternally patient (last time, we went to three different places across Leeds before we found cans of Northern Monk’s Ice cream pale ale), but he also shares our boundless enthusiasm for finding new places to eat and drink; as well as our enthusiasm for just eating and drinking generally.

This time our beer crawl took in the Duck and Drake (old fashioned boozer with log burner and tip-top local ales), Wapentake (friendly café/bar with £2 a pint Tuesdays on cask beer) and Little Leeds Beer house to stock up on supplies, before a promised visit to Bem Brasil to eat barbecue; copious amounts of red meat being another of our shared interests.

In case you have managed to avoid the protein-driven trend that arrived here several years ago, Bem Brasil is a churrascaria (a hard-to-spell way to say barbecue restaurant) that specialises in all-you-can-eat Brazilian barbecue - skewers of assorted grilled meats, carved tableside, accompanied by a variety of hot and cold buffet dishes. And, as it was Christmas, obligatory elf costumes for the churrasqueiros and a bonus chocolate fountain for dessert.

Now, it may be hard to hear limitless meat and not to think of greenery as a pointless distraction, but I was a big fan of the buffet selection - albeit probably because many the dishes involved mayo, cheese or being deep fried. As well as all the salad staples there were some traditional Brazilian items, such as black beans, with pork and pao de queso (Brazilian cheese balls) and, for those who are hankering for something a little more ‘local’, dishes of yorkies, gravy and roasted brussels sprouts.

The real dangers with a buffet are two-fold – overloading on carbs and overloading on everything. I am well practised in carb-ditching, from the days when I used to go out to the Chinese buffet after the pub with past work colleagues and quickly learnt that less rice and noodles meant more crispy duck and shrimp. The latter is always harder, although I managed to exercise enough restraint (just) on this visit, to end up with an, only slightly incongruous, mix of cold salads (the tuna, and a Russian-style salad being particularly good) alongside beef and tomato stew, polenta and the aforementioned sprouts.

Of course, the Ewing heeded no warning and threw herself at it with her customary gay abandon, ending up with a mountain of cold meats, plantain fritters (like a banana rolled in breadcrumbs - the best bit for those of us sweet of tooth - TE) and cabbage. When our basket of chips arrived (they are available on the buffet, but they will fry them to order if you ask), my Uncle, jokingly, asked if she had room for one, before crowning her pile of food with a solitary fried potato stick.

When a glimmer of white space had been cleared on our plates the procession of meats began to emerge from the kitchen, expertly carved by our smiling elfin waiter, who not only impressively still boasted a full compliment of digits and a clean shirt but also kept us topped up with the Good Stuff throughout our meal.

Of all the meats, Uncle John’s favourite was the roast lamb, while the Ewing favoured the spicy little chorizo sausages. I couldn't decide, happily oscillating between chicken thighs wrapped in bacon; the rump steak, with its glorious frill of fat that tasted just like a Sunday roast; and the pichana, or rump cap, the comma shaped speciality of Brazilian barbecue cookery.

Previously my only experience in all-you-can-eat skewered meat had come in Australia, when my sister took us out to dinner in Coogee and I unwittingly realised that by agreeing to sample some of the, less than popular with the other patrons, grilled chicken hearts, I had pretty much committed myself to finishing the whole skewer. As much as I was a fan, a dozen or so Coração de Frango piled up on your plate can soon turn from springy, well-seasoned morsels to salty rubber pucks.

With Uncle John with us, I had no such concerns this time - even if the Ewing didn’t care for them, so I still ended up with a double helping. One thing we did all agree was fantastic was the moceuena, a Brazilian fish stew with a tomato and pepper sauce from the selection of hot buffet dishes. In fact it was so good, I’d go as far to wager it would even get my, mostly vegetarian with the odd bit of fish, Aunt through the door. She would definitely have enjoyed the carafe of merlot.

Feeling a gout attack was imminent - the Ewing was too full to even contemplate the chocolate fountain - we flipped our discs to red and made our way to old favourite Northern Monk. And, like every time we have previously visited, it started raining just as we headed over the Liverpool to Leeds shipping canal.

Which made the Super Kris stolen pale ale, followed by their ambrosial Strannik stout, at 9%, the perfect, warming digestifs. Same time again next year, then?

Thursday, 22 December 2016

House of the Trembling Madness

York is a city that is positively stuffed with history (alongside a surfeit of fudge shops) and the House of the Trembling Madness - tucked away on Stonegate, as you head towards the Minster - is no exception. The rear of the building dates back to 1180 AD, the first Norman house built in York, while the medieval hall upstairs is still traversed with original ships beams that would have set sail on the seas all those centuries ago.

All which makes for a wonderfully quirky interior, with the added bonus of the uneven floors and low door frames that make you feel a little tipsy before you've imbibed a drop - the place is named after the Delirium Tremens after all. Hit your head on the aforementioned beams and you could also wake up feeling like you've got a hangover.

The pub part of the operation is on the first floor - the aforementioned medieval hall and a marvellous room with a vaulted ceiling, ornate candelabra and a wall full of stuffed animal heads. The whole effect bought to mind the kind of place Henry VIII might hang out for a casual tankards of mead, when he wasn’t hosting lavish jousting tournaments or executing his wives. The sheepskin rugs on the chairs and Christmas soundtrack also contributed to the warming feeling of Hygge. Although, retrospectively, that could have also been the brandy in the mulled wine.

In our customary eagerness, we were the first through the doors for our late breakfast/early lunch. And, as even I had to concede, it was beginning to look a lot like Christmas, I started with a pint of the Fairytale of Brew York from the selection of cask beers on the bar. Beers from the shop may be drunk upstairs for an additional £1.25 corkage fee per bottle. 

The Ewing went with the mulled wine, and while it wasn't quite up to the standard of my Aunt's at the panto the day before (she's an expert muller), it was still commendable - as well as being pretty lethal at half eleven in the morning. If you fancy something even stronger check out their beer shots which range from Brewdog's Tactical Nuclear Penguin at 32% right up to The Mystery of Beer, brewed by Dutch brewers 'T Koelschip, and weighing in at a hefty 70%.

Their menu states 'we believe that you should be able to eat food whenever you are hungry or need it, so we have a policy of whenever the pub is open then the food is always available to you'. A nice touch, although beware if you fancy an early pie, as we did, as you may have to wait for your gravy to warm up.

The food, expertly prepared in the tiny galley kitchen that also doubles as the bar, mostly focuses on platters of cold meats, pate and cheese, with a couple of different incarnations of the beef burger (although no chips) and a few hot dishes that can be served with mash (pies, sausages and a daily-changing stew).

The festive salmon platter was a gargantuan array of grub for a mere £6.50. More importantly, it was excellent; hot toast, cold butter, punchy pate with ribbons of smoked fish and capers studded throughout, a dab of dill mustard and a pickled chilli chaser. The homemade House of Madness slaw rounded things off - providing crisp respite from the full on flavours.

The Ewing picked the booze-inspired cheese platter, with wedges infused with Yorkshire whisky, Yorkshire beer hops and Drunken Burt's cider, alongside a Wellington blue and Green Thunder garlic and herb, all accompanied by bread from the Via Vecchia bakery, on the nearby Shambles.

Generous and delicious, although, if I had a criticism, the different flavours soon became pretty indistinguishable. Still, large amounts of cheese and crusty bread with a bunch of redcurrants thrown in for good measure. You can't really go too wrong with that.

I also had to have the steak pie and pea 'tapas', served with a jug of beer and onion gravy A kind of reverse Peter Mandelson with his mushy pea guacamole. If you could find this kinda stuff on the bars of pubs the way you find ham and omelettes in Spain I'd be a happy (and even fatter) girl.

Just in case we weren't already on course for for a seasonal dose of gout, we decided we couldn't miss the Swaledale sausage ring, infused with 7% Yorkshire imperial stout and served on a floury bap, from the breakfast/early lunchtime menu. A very wise choice, especially with lashings of butter and a blob of dill mustard. 

Going back downstairs after lunch  bought to mind the tale of when Pooh goes visiting at Rabbit's House, eats all the honey and promptly gets stuck in the doorway. Thankfully we could still squeeze through to fill our basket from an aladdin's cave of, (very well priced) beers that include a large range of Sam Smiths, from nearby Tadcaster, alongside hard to find local beers, Belgian classics, and American hop bombs There was even a collaboration stout, Descent Into Madness, brewed with the Bad Seed Brewery in Malton.

Down in the basement there is even more booze, with a variable assortment of spirits including gin, whisky, bourbon and a shelf full of the kind of lurid drinks you bring back from two weeks abroad and leave to gather dust on the sideboard for the next decade. There is also a whole case dedicated to the green fairy, absinthe, whose mythical properties were thought to cause many imbibers to hallucinate - although this was more likely caused by withdrawal symptoms from acute alcohol dependency than from the liquor itself.

Oscar Wilde said of the green stuff; 'after the first glass of absinthe you see things as you wish they were. After the second you see them as they are not. Finally you see things as they really are, and that is the most horrible thing in the world'. Unless you're tucked up upstairs, pint in hand and a plate of bread and meat in front of you. Then things look pretty good.

Thursday, 15 December 2016

Crispy Duck

Every time I see my Leeds-based Aunt and Uncle they seem to have a story about their most recent visit to London - a story which usually includes going to ‘Crispy Duck’ on Gerard Street, their favourite dim sum spot for more years than my aunt would care for me to tell you. And every time I hear about it I think I need to get to Chinatown to try it out for myself. Before completely failing to do so.

Of course food and failure are not compatible concepts in my mind - especially when it involves missing out on copious amounts of saturated animal fat with a side order of those puffy little pork buns that have become the Ewing's must order - so when we recently found ourselves tired and hungry somewhere around Shaftesbury Avenue, there was only one place we were going to end up.

Auspiciously, our visit wasn't long after my Uncle’s 70th birthday celebrations - where we had all walked from the Southbank to Piccadilly and I had asked my Uncle to point out the restaurant to me when our route took us up Wardour Street. 

Not that it would have hard to miss, with the big yellow letters and the hooks of roasted poultry hanging up in the window. Although, from the larger, more discrete, sign above the door, it appears the official name is the more prosaic 'Oversea Chinese Restaurant'.

Set on three floors, we were led down to the basement dining area, where the clientele was comprised of fifty per cent Chinese couples, studiously eating dumplings; and fifty per cent couples on first dates, eating the set banquet for two while making nervous conversation. With a raucous family reunion thrown in for good measure. 

All of which provided a lively atmosphere and the perfect mix for people watching - although the distractions made attempting to fill in our choice of dumplings on the carbon paper slip with the little Argos ball point pen more difficult than usual. Luckily the pictures and corresponding numbers on the menu made things a little easier.

The Ewing, who was sporting one less tooth than the week before, was mainly sticking to a liquid diet (something that’s very easy with my Aunt and Uncle around…) and so started with a small bowl of wonton soup.  While I didn’t sample the soup – 'good and gingery' was the verdict – the wonton I managed to snaffle was plump and tight and stuffed with bouncy prawns and minced pork.

From the roast meat and rice menu I paired the eponymous flying avian with a helping of roast pork belly. The duck, as its name suggests, had a crisp, lacquered carapace which gave way to the soft and sticky meat underneath. The pork belly was even better; wobbling chunks of meat striped with thick ribbons of fat and edged with crispy skin.

Ask for their (super hot) homemade chilli oil, which, along with the soy sauce served with the rice, provides a foil to cut through the richness. This isn't food for the faint-hearted.

When I first got together with the Ewing my two favourite things (apart from her of course) were burritos and turnip cake; two of the only things she didn't really like. Subsequently I've had a Mexican wrap and Chinese snack-shaped hole in my life for the past eight years. 

Because of the recent dental work, my wife had already announced she 'wasn't going to eat much', so I took this as the perfect opportunity to order the stir fried turnip cake with chilli sauce, beansprouts, spring onion and finely shredded omelette. Unfortunately, not only did she decide she was quite peckish after all, but she also liked this dish as much as I did. Fortunately it was a huge portion and, well, sharing is caring.

Scallop cheung fun were fine, although retrospectively I wish I'd chosen the barbecued pork version as the bivalve/rice noodle combo was a little too slippery and slithery. More successful were the XO prawn and scallop dumplings with truffle and better still the delicate beef and ginger wontons.

We also ordered char siu buns, which have been the Ewing's favourite ever since we went to Hong Kong a few years ago. These were decent, if unspectacular. Although after years of ordering them every time we go out for dim sum, I think I can safely say I've reached peak pork bun. (Surely not possible - TE)

I've been on my aunt's team at the pub quiz and she doesn't often get things wrong, and her recommendation here is no exception. Good value, central location and, food-wise and it does exactly what it says on the tin - Crispy Duck looks like remaining a family favourite for a few more years to come.

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

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

Oystahs and Crystal, Y'all

In the second of a series I've titled 'take your wife somewhere she wants to eat so she won't complain about walking around a housing estate all afternoon' (the series kicking off at the Big Easy in Chelsea), we trekked back to the Kingsland Road for a visit to Pamela, erstwhile home of Southern-style specialists Decatur, for a spot of weekend brunchin'.

Named after a Street in New Orleans, Decatur was started by owner Tom Browne 'as a celebration of food I couldn’t get here'. And, after contriving to miss them both at their pop up at Mother Kelly's and their stall at Druid Street market - where an endless stream of grilled oysters populate my Instagram on a Saturday morning - I was determined to finally track them down. Auspicious timing, as it later transpired.

While the brunch menu doesn't list their Kentucky style beer cheese - disappointingly for someone who could subsist on beer and cheese (and often does) - it does feature a solid roster of classics with a Louisianan twist that include bananas foster french toast, crispy veggie hash and steak and eggs. 

They also have a whole section called 'biscuit station' (the freshly baked American type, and not related custard cream or jammy dodgers), as well as a bottomless brunch offer that includes as many mimosas and bloody Pamelas as you can manage during your meal.

Tempting as it was (nothing says Sunday, or heartburn, more than a stiff vodka and tomato juice), it was impossible to resist the charms of iced chicory coffee, served sweetened with cane syrup and a splash of milk and finished with a shot of banana infused Jamesons for good measure.

Originally used to 'stretch' the coffee, chicory root is now a common addition to a New Orleans style cuppa joe and the addition of the sweet fruity whiskey here provides the perfect foil for its bitterness. This cocktail was bananas; Gwen Stefani eat your heart out.

As I have pontificated at length on this blog many times, raw oysters don't really do it for me, but a starter of half a dozen of their famed grilled oysters to share- topped with butter, garlic, pecorino and hot sauce and served with chunks of sourdough for mopping up the briny juices - were sweet, tangy little nuggets of joy. 

While purists may baulk at the idea of not just cooking an oyster but smothering it with cheese and chilli, it's not just me who has good things to say about them - just after our visit, Time Out bestowed first place on their list of London's top 100 dishes to theses very bivalves. And after tasting them it's hard not to agree. (Timeout confirmation unrequired...I never choose cooked oysters but these were outstanding - TE).

To a Brit, biscuits and gravy – essentially scones served with a peppery béchamel sauce made with a roux of flour and pork fat and studded with odd lumps of sausagemeat - might seem like a strange concept. I was an early convert, after going to a branch of Rax on my first trip to Florida as a child and discovering the delights of the breakfast buffet piled with strange things such as corn grits and shards of crispy bacon, that I could pile up on puffy little pancakes and douse in maple syrup without a second look from the waitress; although the rest of my family looked suitable disgusted.

Here biscuits are paired with sausage gravy and fried chicken, served with a token scattering of redundant greenery that only serves to highlight the fact everything else is so gloriously saturated with butter. Thankfully, any guilty feelings are fleeting, counteracted by the effects of the banana whiskey. The chicken -  tender boneless thighs, with a carapace that shatters pleasingly as you bite into it – is pretty much on par with the glorious birds being fried by Carl Clarke a couple of doors down. Very high praise indeed.

Named after the town of Breaux Bridge - which has been named 'la capitale mondiale de l'écrevisse' or, more mundanely in English, the crawfish capital of the world, The Ewing's Eggs Pont Breaux also came on a bed of fluffy biscuits. This time they were topped with crawfish etoufee, a spicy seafood stew, accompanied by eggs with perfectly oozy yolks. Pretty much perfect brunch fare.

It wouldn't be brunch N'awlins style with out a plate of freshly fried beignets. Bought to the South in the 18th century by French colonists, these pillow-shaped yeasted fried pastries became so popular they were declared the 'official state doughnut of Louisiana' in 1986.

Traditionally served, buried under a flurry of icing sugar, these three squares of puffed up perfection provided the final gilding on the lily. And while a cafe au lait may have provided a traditional accompaniment (there are no hot drinks available, so grab your caffeine fix before you get here), I 'made do' with the wonderful Tiny Rebel Cali American pale ale.

On getting our bill, our charming waiter told us that the year long Decatur residency - after they were initially only supposed to be there for three months - was finally looking likely to come to an end. Something that has now been confirmed on the Decatur Instagram page. Not all bad news though, for all those craving that Southern fix, they are still serving at Pamela until December 23rd and there are more projects planned for 2017.

But for now, there is still time to treat yourself to an early present - a platter of fine oysters and a fine view of their wall of Pamelas. As Ms Anderson herself said; 'I'd rather be looked over than overlooked'.

Decatur @ Pamela Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato