Monday, 31 July 2017

Thai Aroy Dee

For me, good Thai food should be vibrant with heat and smoke, punchy with the sourness of lime and gently humming with shrimp paste and fish sauce. Which is why it's often so disappointing out of its natural habitat - relegated to bland pub curries; sugary supermarket stir fries; or, possibly worst of all, served in micro portions, in overwrought surroundings, adorned by carved vegetables.

The good people of West Yorkshire, however, seem to have lucked out, with several notable places to get good South East Asian food in Leeds, including the funky Zaap Thai - with it's mix of crowd pleasers and unusual street snacks that made the Ewing cry - and the stylish stalwart Sukothai - with it's slowly burgeoning mini empire.

Thai Aroy Dee - looking more like a mattress salerooms than a restaurant, despite the fairy lights strung out in the windows - might not have either the excitement or charm of the previous picks, but it was always rated highly and was always somewhere I had hoped to squeeze in a visit, at least until their lease ran out on their original spot on Vicar Lane, and they were forced to close unexpectedly.

Fortuitously, another spot became available just down the street, which is, even more fortuitously just adjacent to the car park the Ewing and I park in on our customary last trip into town (to stock up on fish, meat and veg from the Kirkgate Market) after visiting my Aunt and Uncle.

Unusually, the place is licenced but also offers free BYO - Tall Boys Beer Market is just over the road in Thorntons Arcade if you fancy a beer - but, being early on a Tuesday lunchtime and with the long slog back down the M1 awaiting us, we stuck to the soft drinks.

Not a hardship here, where you can pick from exotic sounding beverages such as 'pink cold milk' and 'iced milk green tea' or drinks flavoured with pandan or longdan. I chose the rather more prosaic roasted coconut water, with a extra thick straw to suck up the chunks of the fruit; while the Ewing went for an eye-opening Thai iced coffee with condensed milk and tamarind seeds.

I find it hard to not to order som tum if it's on the menu - the famous green Papaya salad mixed with dried shrimps, carrots, fine beans, fresh chillies, garlic, lime juice, tomatoes, fish sauce and ground peanuts. Here it's served alongside gai yang - crisp and smoky grilled chicken with a hefty punch of spice - improving it even further.

Pad Kee Mao, or 'drunken' rice noodles, with pork, turned out to be flatter than the noodles - the only misstep of the whole meal. While it was generously portioned and packed with a pleasing squeak from the green beans and white cabbage, it missed the advertised punch of the chilli and holy basil. In fact, it seemed to be missing any seasoning at all, something an extra splash of Squid fish sauce some what ameliorated.

In contrast the duck curry with pineapple, cherry tomatoes, pea aubergine and squash, was exemplary. The duck was sweet and tender and the sauce redolent with coconut and fragrant spice, punctuated with bursts of tangy tropical fruit. Alongside was a basket of steamed sticky rice, my favourite kind of rice (or at least on par with Ambrosia, straight from the tin).

The Ewing has a deep and endearing love of prawn crackers and is always insistent we order some; not really a hardship. Despite them forgetting to bring them out until we'd almost finished eating, these were fine examples although, curiously, there were also a few of the more familiar chinese-style interlopers amongst the darker, crisper thai crackers. 

While it might not have the tuk-tuks of Zaap or the ornate carvings of Sukhotai, Aroy Dee (delicious, in Thai) does exactly what it says on the tin. And only thirty quid all in for more food than even we could manage - they also do a two course lunch menu for £6.95 - it also meant we had a bonus bag of prawn crackers to sustain us on the drive back down the M1.

Friday, 21 July 2017

Will and Vics

Until this year Harrogate has consistently topped the poll of the happiest place to live in in the UK, a crown recently stolen by the cheeky Essex charmer, Leigh-on-Sea. Having visited both in the last twelve months and enjoyed, respectively, a Fat Rascal at Betty’s and pints of prawns and a beer down at the cockle sheds, I say it’s pretty much a dead heat. Although you can eat a Rossi’s whippy on the seafront in Leigh, which may just nudge them ahead.

One advantage that Harrogate holds is its proximity to my Aunt and Uncle’s house, making it the perfect place for us Ladies wot Lunch to visit for a refined stroll around the Valley Gardens before luncheon at stalwart on the restaurant scene, Will and Vics.

Downstairs is a curious mix half-olde worldy wine bar and half airy bistro, with a posher dining area upstairs. Popular, even on a Monday lunchtime, there was nearly no room at the inn, and we were tucked away in the cosy alcove just off the bar.

While warm and welcoming, it was also rather worrying that every conceivable surface seemed to be covered in excerpts of the menu - from 'British tapas' to a roster of daily specials. While I can see the potential for spontaneous enticement as you're enjoying a drink, even I found it exhausting to be bombarded with such a huge array of strange-sounding snacks as we were waiting to be seated.

Thankfully they also offer a simple set luch menu (with a slightly amended prix fixe for later in the evening) with two courses for an eminently reasonable ten quid - although, slightly strangely, to add a third course from said was an extra seven pounds.

Bread was the soft, sweet malty stuff that my Mum used to buy warm from the new-fangled in-store bakery at the supermarket (really feeling my age now), and that I used to eat slathered thickly with butter for breakfast as a treat. Fast forward a couple of decades and it still had the same nostalgic appeal.

Fish and chips – haddock, obvs, as we were north of the Watford Gap – was served in Whitby Whaler sized-portions and came with mushy peas and some excellent homemade tartare sauce. If I was being ultra-fussy the posh vinegar missed the point of an abrasive slosh of Sarsons, but luckily ketchup seems to taste the same, whether its out of a ramekin or squeezy bottle.

My Uncle also chose the fish, and  we decided a pint of something cold and creamy was in order to help wash it down. The Theakstons Pale ale - a keg beer, based on their bottled pale ale of the 80’s, and brewed locally in Masham - proved just the ticket.

On first appearances I feared the Ewing’s chicken Milanese appeared a little dry, I had also breezily assured her it was going to be served with frites, rather than ‘fat chips’. Fortuitously both poultry and fried potatoes were very well received, the chicken in particular being excellent; hot, juicy and crisp while being a slightly sad reminder that it’s a dish not seen on more menus.

Of all the puddings, summer fruit pudding must rank right up there. Sadly, like rice pudding - which is also firmly in my top five - it's seldom seen on restaurant menus.  Seemingly the idea of combining stale bread and desert seems to divide and conquer, although I don't rate it nearly as highly when made with sponge cake. 

Thankfully this was properly constructed from white sliced (no pale bits showing through the carapace) and a perfect example of squidgy summeriness, stuffed with tart fruit and topped with a quenelle of Stamfrey Farm clotted cream.

The Ewing's coconut panna cotta served with a mango compote was equally summery and also very good. The panna cotta itself was clean and refreshing - although set rather like a Trump Jr comb-over than a wobbly like a Titian nude - and the mango, one of my favourite fruits, fragrant and tangy.

My aunt, not a pud fan, chose the lemon curd cheese cake to share, and promptly scoffed the physalis on top, before asking if i wanted to capture a picture of it for posterity for the blog. Here she is after replacing the papery skin on top and assuring me any eagle-eyed readers would hardly notice...

Of course, she may just have been happy to live near Harrogate; If I had Will and Vics just down the road I’d be very happy to live here too.

Monday, 17 July 2017

The cat that got the cream

I like curry; I like a the Guardian food review recommendation; and I very much like the company of my cousins, Uncle and Aunt. So when the latter proposed a Sunday drinking beer and eating at The Cat’s Pyjamas, recently favourably rated by Jay in the Grauniad, what wasn’t there to like?

It’s unavoidable that the combination of craft beer and Indian street food in this part of the world will bring comparisons to Bundobust, whose first branch is just five minutes down the road. Although here the menu sees the addition of more substantial meat and fish dishes.

They also serve their food on proper plates, with real cutlery. I have no objection to using a plastic fork to shovel up the last scraps of bhel puri from a paper dish when half-cut on fancy double IPAs, but sometimes it is nice to hold a proper knife and fork (then promptly abandon them to scoop everything up with up with a basket of fluffy naan bread...).

Speaking of the beer, I had been promised good things by my Uncle, who had eaten their the week before. Although, clearly our visit had been preceded by some thirsty Loiners and sadly half the choices were scratched off the board, including the tasty-sounding First Chop Mango Pale, that ran out just as we arrived.

In the end I went with a pint of the Wild Beer Lobster Gose - a beer made with cockles and lobsters, seaweed and sea herbs, and seasoned with Cornish sea salt, saffron and star anise. As you can imagine, not a choice for everyone, although the briny, spicy undertones matched up well to the punchy food.

My Uncle's curiosity overcame him and he also ordered a bottle of coconut beer to share, spurred on by the Ewing's enthusiastic love for the tropical fruit. While it smelt unnervingly like Ambre Soliare, it was also strangely delicious; although I heard its sun protection isn't great. 

We started with baskets of poppadoms, obviously, with a tray of punchy fresh dips - tomato, mango and an appreciated raita, they haven't stinted on the spice levels here. Followed by sharing platters of tandoori mixed grill - including chicken and prawns - and fiery seekh kebabs packed with flecks of fresh green chilli and served with a zingy green mint chutney.

We also shared a plate of pani puri, little bite sized baskets of crisp dough stuffed with spicy cubes of potato and pomegranate seeds, served with a dish of fiery tamarind water to pour over, before devouring in one with as much decorum as you can muster. (Not much, based on the amount of my Aunt’s Vanish Gold I got through later that evening).

The Ewing’s sea bream was a whole fish grilled in a spice paste of lemongrass, red chilli, ginger and lime  and served with a chopped salad and more mint chutney. A decent specimen, nicely cooked to be both crisp and yielding, and at five pence under eleven quid, it was also good value.

Keema mattar, or minced lamb and peas, is a childhood favourite that my mum often used to cook from her battered copy of Madhur Jaffrey. This version was light and delicately fragranced, perhaps a little too underpowered, but served in a generous portion. I also loved the nostalgic fresh pop of peas added towards the end of the cooking time and not boiled until mealy and grey (my Mum’s peas were always perfect).

To accompany our mains we worked our way through the naan menu, from classic garlic and coriander to a great peshwari, stuffed with plenty of coconut-ty filling. I went a bit more outrĂ© with the Yorkshire cheese naan, spurred on by Mr Rayner’s words; ‘ordered because it would be rude not to in Leeds, is the sort of thing you order early here, when you have somehow managed to arrive drunk. It’s oily, melted cheese and oven-scorched bread. It’s filth.’ 

Having managed to arrive not only early, but drunk too, I can also confirm it is filth. Of the highest order; shared with these Filthy Animals. I wouldn't want it any other way.

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

Hot town, summer in the city

A hot summer in the city is one of my favourite things. Of course, like everything in life, there are caveats - being pressed into an armpit on the Northern line in rush hour, or walking around Soho on bin day have their own special olfactory charm – but, overall, there is a special excitement to the heat haze and sticky asphalt; the dead streets; and getting a frozen strawberry lemonade form the McDonald’s in Walworth Road (if they’re not cleaning the machines, again) on the way back to Stealth’s after a big night out.

Eating on occasions like these demands a laid-back approach. Sure, you can enjoy the icy blast of air-conditioning somewhere identikit, but far better to be gently sweating somewhere with the door propped open; a redundant fan in the corner, blowing the hot air about; and simple food washed down with a cooling libation or two. All of which boxes Patogh, just off the Edgware road successfully ticks.

Sitting by the window meant a cooling breeze, and a fascinating view down to the kaleidoscope of one of London's most vibrant thoroughfares, but I did feel sympathy for the guys working behind the blazing grills and charcoal oven. Especially as I suspect they were more than twelve hours in to their fast for Ramadan.

It isn't licenced, but you can bring your own alcohol. As we'd had a few poky #trainbeers on the way there, I stuck to the sparkling water while the Ewing had her favourite, doogh. A divisive (the thought gives me the dry heaves) thin yoghurt drink with added salt and mint, it proved an ideal way for her to temper the heat.

Mixed starters brought a platter featuring shairazi salad (chopped tomatoes, cucumber, onion and parsley); two tangy yoghurts, one with shallot and one with cucumber; and creamy houmous topped with a thicket of fresh herbs. 

Although it wasn't advertised, they also bought us a dish of mixed pickled veg that were very similar to the jars of 'Nanny pickle' my grandmother made. We all used to fight over the green tomatoes when I was growing up, and the Ewing and I were soon locked in a nostalgic battle for the best bits.

To scoop up our dips we also ordered the big special bread, which has got to be one of the best, and most accurately, named dishes in town. What turns up is indeed big and made of bread, and its pretty special too. Cooked in their own clay oven, it's at turns crusty and chewy and pillowy with a wonderful smoky, nutty flavour from the charred spots and the sesame seeds scattered on top.

Chelo khoresh ghaimah was a stew of split yellow peas, diced lamb and dried lime; slow cooked in a tomato sauce with 'potato cubs' and topped with crisp-like potato matchsticks. I'm not normally a big fan of a stew, especially when stewing in the heat, but here the meat was gently yielding, the sauce deep and rich and glossy, and the spiky sour edge from the citrus made it perfect for the weather.

Chelow Kebab - the Iranian national dish of steamed saffron rice topped with skewered meat - come in the choice of two meats; lamb or chicken, and two varieties; kofte and shish; or you can go wild and have a mixture of the two. I chose the lamb kofte, served with a suggestion of salad and with more saffron rice - topped with a pleasing large lump of butter. This, with a good squirt of their homemade chilli sauce, is kebab perfection. And you don't even have to be pissed. 

Fabulous, fast food, friendly service and, at thirty quid for the lot, great value anywhere - not just in this frenetic corner of town. All making Patogh a great option, come rain or shine.

I can tell you my love for you will still be strong
After the boys of summer have gone