Thursday, 30 March 2017

Oxford: Pints and Pizza Tour

Last year Chiltern Railways announced that, for the first time in 100 years, a new route between a major British city (Oxford) and the capital was going to be opening. Meaning the city of dreaming spires was now a little over half an hour away from home. 

For most people this would have probably meant planning a nice trip to the Ashmolean, or the botanical gardens, or punting on the River Cherwell, but the one thing I was most excited about was all the fabulous pubs we could now visit and still be able to stagger safely home. And, after having recent cravings for a 'proper' pizza, the Ewing promised me I could combine my two great loves (after her of course) on the #pintsandpizzatour.

Our first stop was supposed to be Beerd, the second branch of the 'craft pub' off-shoot from West Country brewers Bath Ales. But, after pretty much jogging all the way from the station in my excitement, this sign was the first thing I saw.

Upon enquiring inside - on the hopeful chance the poster was out of date - the bar staff reported the closure of the kitchen was linked with St Austell's takeover of Bath Ales, with the company currently reviewing if the pub will continue to be managed or be passed over to a tenant landlord. While skipping food for an early beer was tempting, there were still several stops to get through and I needed some ballast to stop the ship from keeling.

Thankfully we still had enough strength for a stroll around the corner, just in time our next port of call to open its doors for the day. The White Rabbit is an independent pub serving real ales and pizza just off Gloucester Green. And, with a kitchen headed by an Italian and fresh ingredients imported from the homeland each week, I had high hopes for our first lunch.

To drink, the Ewing tried a new XT brew the Jester experimental the first using the CF125 hop, to be renamed something catchier if the beer takes off. I went classic with an Oxford Scholar, a traditional English mid-strength bitter from the nearby Shotover Brewery. Both were decent enough (especially after several weeks of not drinking), although the enjoyment was slightly marred by the 'floaties' of yeast in the bottom of both our glasses.

My margarita, with a swirl of chilli oil cleverly disguised in a amaretto bottle to make us appear like hardened drinkers to the table next door, was perfect simplicity. The crust was a little more robust than a classic Neapolitan pizza, meaning you could cut a wedge and fold it up NYC style, and as I ate it I imagined I was Kevin MaCallister, on Christmas Eve. Which is a very good thing.

The Ewing went fancy with a Lumberjack - a pizza bianca with mozzarella, porcini mushrooms, truffle cream, speck & parsley. While I was initially a little dubious the smoky ham and funky mushrooms riffed nicely with the milky mozzarella and puffy base. Dare I say, it might have been even nicer than mine.

Next we went straight back to the old school with a trip to the White Horse on the High Street. The building dates back to the 16th century and has become more recently famous for appearing in episodes of Morse, Lewis and Endeavour. Eagle-eyed fans might even have noticed the photos of John Hancock on the wall during a recent episode of the latter show. Very meta.

Regular beers include Brakespeare’s Oxford Gold and White Horse’s Wayland Smithy. I tried the latter while then Ewing went for another Shotover Brewing co. beer, this time their session bitter, Oxford Prospect (the last pint in the cask, much to the chap behind hers dismay). Two ales I’m sure Endeavour - or his creator, and beer fan, the late Colin Dexter - would have been very happy sipping while ruminating over the latest body.

I’m not sure our detective would have been quite as pleased to be cheek to jowl with the throng of (very entertaining) tourists from Oklahoma drinking mulled wine – it appears hot wine is big business in Oxford, even in March. And yes, I am aware of the irony of my comments, being a day-tripper myself. Although, thankfully for the Ewing’s sake, I seem to be getting less curmudgeonly as time goes by.

Another of Oxford’s plethora of famed hostelries is the Eagle and Child (A.K.A the Bird and Baby) where The Inklings - a  1930's writers' group with members including Tolkien and C.S Lewis - who would meet to discuss unfinished manuscripts in the 'Rabbit Room' at the rear. 

Now it’s a Nicholson’s pub, and while it retains its original frontage, the interior – once you walk past the atmospheric and cosy alcoves by the entrance -  has more of an identikit feel, not helped by the narrow proportions of the building and lack of natural light.

The selection of beers is sound though, with four ales on offer including the serviceable Nicholson’s Pale. I chose the, so-so, Hopback Winter Lightening, being as it was geographically the closest and a beer that I have enjoyed in its famous summer incarnation. Better was the Ewing’s choice of a pint of Dave from Great Heck in North Yorks. A very decent toasty dark ale that she kindly let me share while we plotted our further adventures thanks to a postcard we had picked up at the White Horse.

Our penultimate stop was the Rickety Press, in a sunny corner of Jericho. The pub is part of the Dodo group (along with the Rusty Bicycle on the Magdalen Road), which, certainly from the selection on offer when we visited, seems to be tied to Arkell's beers. A fairly uninspiring looking range (I had already told the Ewing to stay away from the Old Rosie cider), although I was pretty pleased with my pint of 3B Bitter, with a tight creamy head not often seen south of the Watford Gap.

Already, less than a third of the way into the new year, a contender for Best Thing I have eaten in 2017 is the Rickety Press’ n’duja pizza. Not so much for the chunks of fiery Calabrian sausage, delicious as they were, but for the tangy, chewy sourdough base speckled with charred spots from its ferocious firing. I didn’t even need the home made dipping sauce for my crusts, and I love a dipping sauce for my crusts.

The topping on the pizza bianca here - speck, rocket, gorgonzola and pickled pears - was slightly less successful than at our previous stop. Although the magic of blue cheese on a pizza (or on anything) should never be underestimated, especially when paired with the same gloriously chewy base.

And, as even we struggled to finish our second round of pies, it meant I got to enjoy the leftovers (thanks to the Ewing for carefully carrying the box upright all the way home) later that evening with a, judicious, splash of truffle oil like our pie at the White Rabbit - the best of both worlds.

After all those pints and pizza it was time for a little pudding and what better than a G&D ice cream, from their Davis branch on Little Clarendon Street. My waffle cone - filled with a special Rolo flavour, designed for Valentine's Day (I didn't share) was the perfect accompaniment to a stroll across to the Denys Wilkinson Building. The beautiful Brutalist home to Oxford's Nuclear and particle physics departments. 

As we slowly swayed our satiated way back to the station, I'll leave you with the, rather apt, words of Max Beerbohm; 'that old bell, presage of a train, had just sounded through Oxford Station; and the undergraduates who were waiting there, gay figures in tweed or flannels, moved to the margin of the platform and gazed idly up the line'.

Monday, 20 March 2017

Love buns in Brum

Last month saw the Ewing and I celebrate 5 years of marriage (or 1.25, if you consider we were married on a leap day). As love is all about compromise, she graciously entertained the idea of visiting Coventry Cathedral on a windswept February afternoon, while I tried not to snore too loudly through Sean Lock at the Birmingham Apollo.

One thing we could both readily agree on was a surfeit of food and drink to celebrate. So after cocktails the night before at the charming 40 St Paul’s – a bracing Gilpin’s dirty martini and a dangerously smooth G and T made with Blackwoods 60, a 60% gin that is, purportedly, currently the strongest available (also try the smoked and salted gin if you see it) – we elected to chase the cobwebs away with a brunch trip to Ken Ho in Birmingham’s Chinatown.

Being faced with platters of sticky buns and bamboo baskets of steaming hot dumplings always seems to do the trick if I’m feeling in a parlous state, not to mention the free facial you get as they arrive at the table. Throw in some crispy roast meat for protein, a good dash of soy to top up the sodium levels and stir fried greens for iron and you’ve got the perfect hangover cure.

It’s a cliché to say it, but it’s always a good sign when you're the only white faces in the house; even more so when a steady queue was already building behind us at 12:30 on a grey Wednesday. And, after assuring our waiter that we were actually there for the dim sum menu, rather than the Chinglish classics (as much as I love a deep-fried prawn ball), we got started with a pot of jasmine tea and some wonderfully short and flaky roast pork puffs. I love the trashiness of good Chinese baking, and here the balance between the lard-enriched pastry and sweet filling was perfectly balanced. Like a superior, Asian-inspired Greg’s sausage roll.

A classic test of the kitchen is har gau - those plump, shell-shaped shrimp dumplings – and these were belters. While the skin wasn’t a gossamer thin as some (with my chopstick skills, I prefer them slightly thicker, anyway) the filling was plump and bouncy with discernible chunks of sweet prawn. Better still were spinach and prawn dumplings, their lurid cases stuffed with a garlicky mixture of chopped seafood and greens.

Another good reason to visit Ken Ho for lunch is for their selection of roast meats, served with choi sum atop a bed of rice or noodles. We had the holy trilogy of roast duck, char sui and crispy pork belly with crispy egg noodles, with my favourite bits being the slices of sweet and smoky barbecued loin and the glass-like postage stamps of perfect crackling.

As much as I love the combination of sweet and stodge, I grew rather jaded about char sui buns after coming back from a trip to China and realising nothing served back at home could ever seem to match those pillowy clouds of porkiness. The Ewing, however, never stops trying and is always quick to put in her order - apart from this time, when she acquiesced after my grumbles and ordered the chicken and mushroom ones instead.

Sadly these buns missed the salty spiciness of the traditional meat filling contrasting with the puffy dough. I was suitably chastised, as well as being left to eat my way through the unfortunate (or fought over) third bun that makes sharing dim sum between a couple so potentially tricky.  A sad situation that not even their fearsome chilli oil did much to rectify.

Thankfully, things ended on a high note, with a customary plate of custard buns. Far preferable to a doughnut, these had the perfect sweet dough to gooey, golden filling ratio with a nice textural crunch from being deep fried.

If that wasn't pleasure enough, I even poked a few chunks of leftover roast duck into the centre of my bun for a heart-stopping mouthful. Although, even the best dim sum couldn't send my heart as aflutter as my lovely lunching companion. Don't worry, I spared her the romantic talk over our meal; even the Ewing can go off her food. Happy anniversary, Lump. Here's to another year of eating adventures.

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Spurs Are on Their Way to Wembley

You’d think, after all the nerve-shredding high drama of our visit to White Hart Lane, the Ewing would have been put off football for a long while. But, mere weeks later she was clamouring to go and see them again, this time at Wembley versus KAA Gent, in pursuit of a place in the last 16 of the Europa League.

While Spurs European campaign so far this season had ended in ignominy, no wins at Wembley (their adopted home for continental forays while the ‘new’ Lane is being built) and being booted out of the Champions League after failing to qualify from their group, I had a better feeling about their match against the Belgian Buffalos, despite a thoroughly turgid first leg the week before where the Lilywhites had contrived to lose one nil and failed to chalk up the vital away goal (an appalling match where they played with no vigour at all - TE).

A girl can't chant on an empty stomach (the Ewing had spent most the week learning the words to Ossie's Dream, Chas and Daves effort for the 1981 cup final - 'Spurs are on their way to Wembley, Tottenham's gonna do it again! They can't stop'em, the boys from Tottenham, the boys from White Hart Lane, Oi!' Repeat until your wife gets pissed off with you - TE), so after a rather overcrowded train ride - thanks to the best efforts of Storm Doris blowing trees across the railway tracks from Beaconsfield to Birmingham - we stopped for a pre-match meal at Karahe Queen. 

A cheap and cheerful hole in the wall complete with laminated menus; Pakistani pop music; (very) late night opening and a BYO booze policy (a four pack of Ghost Ship, we're not lager louts you know), it's the perfect place to call in for some sustenance before or after the game.

Thanks to a diary conflict, I had already been out for lunch earlier in the day (a chilli dog on a belgian waffle followed by a chocolate peanut ice cream affogato) and, unsurprisingly, was feeling rather delicate of appetite. Equally unsurprisingly, the Ewing was primed and ready for action, so she started on the gratis dips and salad, featuring rather wan discs of carrot, while we waited for one of her favourites from the starter section, paneer tikka.

While I personally prefer risking a bout of heartburn from the spicier green chilli version of the familiar cottage cheese chunks, the tikka spice marinated cubes - threaded onto a skewer before being grilled in the tandoor and served on a bed of of pepper and onion – were still very good.

The keema here, as well as including the more familiar pea, is also offered with the addition of tinned sweetcorn. An ingredient that also crops up in a variety of the meat and veg karahi dishes on the menu. While this may horrify some, much like when the yellow kernels crop up on pizza, apparently it’s a familiar addition to many home-style curries in the north of India and Pakistan. I liked it, but then I like pretty much anything that included the Jolly Green Giant’s staple food source (yes, even the occasional deep pan pizza).

Something you also don’t often see on an anglicised menu is methi, or fenugreek leaves. Here they were added to the chicken karahi; a curry with tomatoes, ginger, garlic and 'secret spices'; and cooked and served in the eponymous iron pot. If I was being extra picky, I might have preferred a little extra greenery, but overall it was a well-balanced dish - nicely spiced and not too rich and oily.

To finish, we shared an aloo paratha, layers of enriched wholewheat dough stuffed with a spiced potato mixture and fried. If anyone’s come up with a better idea than stuffing bread with more carbs then I’ve yet to hear it, and far better for mopping up your curry than pedestrian pilau rice.

The bill came to a shade over £20, with tip, a not unreasonable amount of dosh for a reasonable amount of food – although it was only my reduced capacity after my lunchtime escapades which prevented me ordering anymore. 

Reduced capacity wasn’t a fate that befell Wembley later that evening, after a reduced price ticket deal saw Spurs sell out a full capacity stadium for the game. Sadly, although the N17 faithful were in good voice, a silly challenge from Alli (the author's favourite - TE) and a goal from Kane (the wonder boy, my fave! - TE) - sadly at the wrong end - put pay to our progress. Still, if the rumours are true and my beloved team relocated temporarily to Brent for the 2018/19 season then chance are I’ll be sampling the menu again.