Monday, 30 January 2017

Backs to the window - Xi'an Impression

Following the ‘bad news first’ rule, I’m going to get the negatives about our lunch at Xi’an Impression out the way – namely the view across the street. Now I appreciate that one man’s meat is another man’s poison, so perhaps looking at Emirates would be welcome for some patrons. But, as a supporter of North London's first team, I made sure to resolutely keep my back to the window (let's get this straight, I went to the toilet and came back to find 'we' had moved tables to make sure HER back was to Emirates - TE).

Thankfully, things markedly improved from this point onwards when the waiter, shortly after taking our order, re-approached the table to ask if we had eaten there before. After, cautiously, responding in the negative, he enthusiastically congratulated us for ordering all the right things. Not particularly difficult choices -  I had read a few reviews and blogs beforehand, plus the recommended dishes have a Facebook style ‘like’ symbol on the menu - but it still made me feel secretly smug.

Xi’an, located in the Shaanxi Province, is the end of the Silk Road, home to the terracotta Army (yes, I have been on Wikipedia) and, due to its cold climate, has a cuisine based on wheat instead of rice. Happily, this means a proliferation of noodle dishes, one of the most famous being ‘cold skin noodle with gluten’.  The dish is made by soaking a salt and flour dough in water and retaining the cloudy liquid before allowing it to settle overnight and then steaming the sediment in shallow trays, slicing into thin strips and serving cold.

While it doesn’t perhaps sound the most attractive of propositions on paper, it’s a pretty little dish, finished with a julienne of cucumber and a slick of (not very spicy) oil. Apply caution (or wear a dark shirt), these suckers are slippery.

The boneless chicken in ginger sauce was another beguiling plate - the strips of buttery poached meat built up in a dome over slices of pickled cucumber and served with a sauce spiked with strips of fiery ginger – and tasted just as good. This was possibly my dish of the day; delicate and clean with a little kick at the end and the antithesis to most boring breast dishes.

The Ewing wanted dumplings and chose the delicate pot stickers, stuffed with pork and seaweed, over the heftier boiled variety. These are served open-ended, with a crispy frill from being pan fried, and were juicy and hot - just as you want your dumpling action to be. The waiter also kindly offered to bring us the traditional Xi'an dipping sauce traditionally served with the boiled dumplings, a black vinegar and spring onion flecked number which I happily flung over everything on the table, plus myself.

Biang, biang mian – wide wheat noodles, so called for the onomatopoeic slapping sound they make on the table when they are being pulled – reminded me of the wonderful big belt noodles served at Silk Road in Camberwell. Here we tried them with beef, instead of the more familiar chicken, and were rewarded with an Eastern twist on Italian pappardelle with ragu - a rich and fragrant rib-sticker of a dish with bouncy noodles that had a pleasing elastic chew and a background heat that built from the pool of fragrant chilli oil.  

As well as tasting great, fact fans may also be interested to know that biang is also, apparently, the Chinese character comprised of the most brushstrokes - 58 strokes in its traditional form. The character for "biáng" cannot be entered into computers, hence why you will always see it written in a truncated form, or using the roman alphabet, on menus.

While I don’t have any pointless trivia about the beef ‘burger’ - the final item that emerged from the kitchen, as the first batch were still being prepared - I can report it was worth the wait. Comprised of a shallow, dense bun, a little like an English muffin, split and stuffed with shredded beef that was laced with liberal amounts of cumin and chilli (the hottest thing we ate), it was just missing a rustling pile of chips.

I jest about the fried potatoes; even the Ewing and I were struggling to clear our plates at this point. Of course, we still managed it though, leading to the second compliment of the meal when our waiter applauded us for finishing every dish, after originally thinking we had over-ordered. I assured him it was more of a testament to the quality of the food rather than our gluttonous nature, but didn’t quite know whether to feel smug or ask for my wafer thin mint and roll myself out the door.

While there’s no booze (you can bring your own), barely any room and the neighbourhood is questionable (certainly for a Lilywhite), the service is lovely, the food fantastic and, if you don’t look out the window, you’ll be more than alright.

Thursday, 19 January 2017

Wet and dry at Jackson and Rye

I’ve - somewhat inadvertently, mainly due to illness and Christmas over-indulgence and an attempt to support the Ewing, who's trying to kick the slimline menthols  - managed to get through the year thus far without recourse to an alcoholic beverage. In fact, I didn’t even have a drink to see in the New Year.

While all of this may seem horribly out of character, I can assure you I’m having lunch at one of my favourite pubs next week, and if I’m not several sheets to the wind, ordering a big bowl of chips and gravy, at about five o’clock then feel free to send help.

In the meantime I’ve developed a fried breakfast habit – possibly as it’s a meal that’s still best consumed with gallons of mahogany-coloured tea (unless you’re in the airside Wetherspoons at Gatwick, where a pint of Stella is also mandatory). Handily replacing the strain on my liver with a strain on my arteries.

Sadly, the humble greasy spoon is a dying breed and I was forced to go a bit more upmarket for brekkie on our recent trip to rainy Richmond, choosing the riverside outpost of Jackson and Rye for brunch. And while Marina O’Loughlin didn’t much care for dinner at the Soho branch in her Guardian review, she did like 'the American-style pancakey brunch', which is good enough for me.

We could have started proceedings with a bloody mary, or even a virgin one, but that would have been a bloody shame. Instead we went for the drip coffee, served DIY style with a tray of assorted paraphernalia that felt a bit like a scene in Trainspotting. Bonus points for supplying enough hot water for two large mugs each and for warming the milk, if you like that sort of thing diluting your liquid caffeine.

I took Marina’s advice and chose the pancakes, served with caramelised banana and maple syrup cream, and a side dish of candied maple slab bacon. As soft and puffy as Madonna’s cheeks, these were serious stuff and were some of the best pancakes I have eaten in a while. I particularly liked the banana, which had been bruleed on top with a burnt sugar crust, but was still raw underneath; cooked banana is just Not Nice. Top marks, too for a full syrup jug on the table, which I made full use of.

Bacon was thick cut and smoky, my only real grumble being that, like the pancakes, it was served lukewarm. I haven’t yet reached the age where I’m slavishly obsessed with plates being nuclear temperature and enjoying my food glowing like the sun, but tepid fat on my rasher isn’t that appealing.

The Ewing was thwarted after her first choice of salt beef hash and poached eggs was off the menu and while the waitress and I managed to persuade her the hueuvos rancheros was the next best thing, she remained unconvinced. While not a bad dish, it’s not as much fun trying to eat a crisp corn tortilla - topped with fried eggs, avocado, black beans and hot sauce - with a knife and fork, for breakfast, when you’re really craving a big heap of comfort food. The crispy home fries were very good, though and I applaud any dish that manages to sneak chorizo in before midday.

Overall, while our brunch was a cut above tinned tomatoes and meat paste sausages, it was also slightly less fun - or maybe that was the lack of booze talking. Still, sticking to soft drinks kept the bill commendably low for these parts - 27 quid including very charming, if slightly scatty, service.

Wired with caffeine and satiated with refined carbs and lashings of sugar and saturated fat, we shuffled off in the drizzle for a leisurely walk down the Thames - where I managed to take the above photo that combines Don't Look Know with Alfred Hitchock (one for the film buffs). I could get used to this Dry January lark.

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Wycombe Bites - Red Squirrel Brewery Shop Emporium

My last Wycombe Bites blog started with an adage comparing new bars to buses, this time I'm beginning with one about the levels of precipitation. And, with the Brewery Shop Emporium following hot on the heels of the stylish Heidrun, lucky Wycombians now find it’s the craft beer that’s pouring. 

Opened as the flagship branch of the Berkhamsted-based Hertfordshire brewers Red Squirrel, the Emporium is a split level part bar/part bottle shop/part pizzeria. And if that doesn't fulfil all your worldly needs, there's also fresh coffee, wine and snacks and even a cold room - where you can pick cans and bottles, to drink in or takeaway - where the beers are stored at perfect imbibing temperature. 

A fun (if bijou) space to browse when they first opened, back in the dog days of summer, it's something more of an endurance, standing in what is essentially an oversized fridge, now the cold weather has set in. Luckily you can see everything through the glass windows, to save yourself getting frostbite while you dither. The lovely staff are also always on hand to help with a suggestion or have a chat about what they're drinking.

Fortuitously (or not) I have to walk past on my way home from work, so have become a bit of a regular. And while all the beer has been reliably decent, one thing that does set it apart from most local hostelries is the quality of their cask offering. 

Sometimes you just want a ‘boring brown bitter’ - which, kept properly, is still one of my favourite beers - or a refreshing golden ale or a warming ruby number. While the cask here it’s probably served a touch too cold for the purist, I far prefer this to the lifeless, syrupy stuff that’s sadly often the norm in this neck of the woods. Even better, it’s often cheaper than the keg version of the same beer (a subject that's recently got everyone a flutter all over again thanks to Cloudwater's recent blog).

As well as their superior cask - their Green Hop, brewed with hops grown in Berkhamsted, was one of my beers of the year - the keg and bottle selection is also sound. The taps regularly showcase beers from Cloudwater, Chorlton, Magic Rock and Anarchy among others, alongside a big range of (mostly) British bottles and cans at pretty fair prices.

As with the cask, the keg beers I've most enjoyed drinking here are Red Squirrel numbers - brewed under their experimental 'Mad Squirrel' umbrella. My two favourites being their creamy milk stout, a roasty dark beer brewed with lactose, and their DAPA, a 7.8 percent incarnation of their original american pale ale that has become the traditional nightcap on work nights out and a traditional regret the following morning in the office...

Snack wise – a critical part of any decent bar's offering - they have a reasonable selection of Pipers crisps, posh nuts and the very good Billy Franks jerky, made by the fab @billyfrankscouk in a railway arch on Druid Street in Bermondsey. If they had pickled onion Monster Munch or grab bags of Quavers they would have my heart forever (frazzles for me please - TE), but it’s a good start and there's always the garlic bread (get it with cheese, obviously), which is perfect to tide you over when you’re trying to work out which beer to order next.  

Following on from the garlic bread, they also have pizza, which is prepared from scratch in the small ‘kitchen’ area behind the bar upstairs. If you’re a purist, you may want to look away now as flavour combos include pastrami, olives and pesto; smoked salmon, dill and cream cheese (very good); ham, hop oil and star anise-spiced pineapple; pepperoni and pickled jalapeno, pulled pork with bbq sauce and, rather surprisingly, my favourite pairing of jerk chicken, peppers and pine nuts. 

In (my) ideal world it would be fired in a wood-fuelled brick oven and bought to the table blistered and crispy with a slightly charred crust – but, back in HP11, it’s cooked in an electric oven and arrives looking more like a frozen pizza that you’ve tried to pimp up at home by adding the contents of all the half-finished jars in the fridge.

From a pizza-fanatic this isn’t a criticism - far from it, frozen pies have got me through some difficult periods of my life -and, for oven-baked pizza, this is really very good. The polenta-dusted crust has a nutty sweetness that pairs well with the bold toppings, while it's crisp structural integrity means toppings can be piled up while the base remains robust. Perfect drinking fodder.

From your morning coffee to your late night night cap, the Red Squirrel is the perfect all-day one stop shop. And, as the long as the beer is flowing and the pizzas are being flung, I'm very happy to make another home from home in my adopted home town.