Friday, 29 September 2017

Desayuno Colombiano

As much as I love my self-appointed second home, at Stealth’s flat in Elephant and Castle, it’s never been because of the refreshments on offer. In fact, I still remember the first time the Ewing visited – after breezily dismissing my prior warning – and, accidently, put salt in the tea (Stealth had eaten all the sugar cubes) before having a mini-meltdown through lack of sustenance (Stealth had kindly bought me a box of Reece’s cereal, but there was no milk. And she had eaten most of the cereal…)

On my most recent visit I was far more prepared as, sensing she would be otherwise occupied on a Saturday morning (it turns out, she was snoozing off the after-effects of too many cocktails the night before), I had cunningly planned a breakfast stop before heading over to hers.

While there’s a plethora of traditional caffs in the area, including the wonderful time warp that is Jenny’s, in the E&C shopping centre and the Electric Elephant, actually on Stealth’s road, I decided to embrace the Latin spirit of Elephant – which still lives on, despite the attempted ‘gentrification’ of the area – by finally getting around to visit Chatica.

Positioned in the railway arches, alongside several other South American restaurants and bars, Chatica looks like the most approachable of the bunch – with its welcoming yellow décor, racks of freshly baked bread in the window and bright logo splashed across the frontage that make it seem ripe for a roll out, although they currently only have the original branch.

Pandebono or pan de bono is a type of enriched Colombian bread made of corn flour, eggs, fermented cassava starch and stuffed with cheese and shaped into balls or rings. Traditionally, it is consumed fresh out of the oven, with a mug of spiced hot chocolate at breakfast time, so when in Rome…

Dunking the chunks of bread into the milky drink was reminiscent of family holidays, eating croissants with bowls of chocolat chaud, right down to the murky sludge when you reach the bottom. A South American Twitter friend recommended topping the hot chocolate with cubes of white cheese, which apparently melts as you drink it, which I guess could improve the dregs, but still sounds a bit weird for my Western tastes.

As I knew food would soon be in short supply, I followed this with the Calentado la Chatica, scrambled eggs with marinated skirt steak, beans and rice, sans egg but with extra sausage. I attempted to ask for a stick of the rust-coloured chorizo, which I could see in the counter next to the empanadas, but somehow ended up with two English-style herby bangers, which accompany the traditional fry up they also offer.

While it was a champion breakfast - steak and beans improve pretty much anything, apart from the air quality of those around you - it was also one of the rare occasions (almost always most keenly felt at breakfast) where I wished I wasn’t an oeuf-avoider, as I guess the balance of the three main components is what makes it such a classic. I would have also loved a good squirt of chilli sauce. Something Stealth does always have in her cupboard.

As the Ewing was missing out on all the fun, I picked up a couple of bits from the deli/shop to the rear of the cafe - which are also available online including jars of their own dulche de leche and more beans than Heinz - along with a Roscón de Arequipe from the bakery counter. A crunchy sugar-topped ring bun filled with the aforementioned milk jam. 

The cassava puffs (bought for the cartoon character on the front of the packet) were curiously moreish, in a slightly odd-tasting way (like those little trays of nibbles you find in posh bars, that you’re never quite sure if you like, but keep eating anyway), but the real hit was the spiced blocks of compressed, sweetened chocolate, that the Ewing crumbled into hot milk and happily dipped her buns into. (oo-er - TE).

As predicted, the cupboard was bear when I got to Stealth’s, although she did have a cold beer to welcome me with and she worked out that Uber eats delivers McDonalds to her flat. Which meant I got ‘breakfast’ without even having to leave the flat the following morning. Good things come to those who wait (nearly ten years, but hey…).

Friday, 22 September 2017

Sugar and Smoke

What’s a bank holiday without a fractious trip on the M25 to see relatives - punctuated by a stopping off for a ‘relaxing’ meal and a few drinks, all while getting suitably lost en route. I mean is it even a bank holiday without an argument about what music to play in the car and which way you should have gone at the last roundabout, before lunchtime?

Our venue for a late summer bank holiday squabble (the last opportunity until Christmas) was the Maldon Smokehouse. A traditional smokehouse - tucked down a quiet little lane - that offers a succinct menu of cured fish, meat and cheeses, plus a few hot dishes, in a secluded spot overlooking the river Chelmer. Real Robinson Crusoe stuff, if you can ignore the fact you're actually still in an estuary town somewhere in East Essex.

It’s an utterly idyllic location, conveniently ignoring the tiled roof of Tesco’s peering out from the foliage across the water and the gentle hum of the A414 in the distance . Auspiciously, on our visit at the fag-end of August, the English weather was clement enough to sit out in shirt sleeves and enjoy the last warming rays of summer sun.

It’s unlicensed, but they let you BYO - with no charge, and our arrival was swiftly heralded by a cheery greeting - a special shout must go to the service, which throughout was as sweet as the seafood - and the appearance of an ice bucket, filled with ice, and glasses for our bottle of verdicchio. A very civilised start to proceedings.

I went classic with the crevette, prawn and smoked salmon combo; three slices of hand carved salmon, a pile of plump Crustacea and a dish of marie rose sauce - not far away from being my perfect desert island starter (I’d add some wobbly aioli, for extra dipping; and maybe some barbecued squid and scallops, cos why not).

It was all utterly lovely; the thick-cut fish had a pleasingly robust texture and firmness and a delicate smokiness, while the sweet prawns were very pleasing when dunked in the retro sauce. Best of all were the crevettes (a word with a seemingly interchangeable definition, taken here to mean ‘larger prawn’), which were like the prawns on steroids and accordingly exceptional.

The Ewing’s Seafood Overboard platter included salmon, prawns (peeled and unpeeled), mackerel, crayfish and a choice of crevettes or half a Norfolk crab. Again, it was all great, although a special shout out to the mackerel, which was buttery and delicate in comparison to the more familiar thwack of smoke from industrially produced fish (although my jaded taste buds do have a soft spot for a liberally-peppered mackerel fillet with a good squeeze of lemon). 

The crayfish was also surprisingly perky and delightful (does anyone really like crayfish), managing to not taste disappointingly like fishy cotton wool. And of course the Ewing had hours of fun (literally), dissecting her prawns in the manner of Dr Lecter.

To finish we shared the only pud on their menu (although, they do have Rossis ice cream and smoked cheeses) , a honeycomb cheesecake studded with chunks of chocolate and shards of cinder toffee and served with lashings of chocolate sauce and an entirely superfluous – although very welcome – ball of vanilla ice cream. 

The texture was more airy, like a frozen parfait, than the dense and claggy cheesecake I normally prefer (Waitose New York style, eaten on the sofa, normally in a state of semi-undress) but this version made the perfect palette cleanser after all the salt and smoke.

Ping pong and prawns may not be a classic combination, but adjacent to the cosy indoor restaurant area you can also find a games room, complete with table tennis tables that can be hired for a fiver an hour - the Ewing fancied a burl, but I needed more time for lunch to go down before attempting any Forest Gump style acrobatics. There’s also fussball, if you fancy something a little more sedentary (tbf, I normally find watching Spurs on the TV exhausting enough).

It's a strictly cash only enterprise, and luckily we manage to scrape together enough moolah to pay the bill and have some pocket change left for a couple of goodies from their takeaway counter, deciding, after much deliberation, on smoked duck breast and smoked Stilton - although the honey coloured wedges of brie and silvery whole mackerel were very tempting. Perfect for a ploughman’s lunch when we were back home, contemplating the sudden onslaught of autumn.

The fact the Ewing was driving meant I got the lion’s share of the wine, something she bore with exceedingly good grace after enduring a drunken trip to the supermarket, with me stumbling up and down the aisles, picking up improbably flavoured crisps after our meal. 

Thankfully bickering was averted on the rest of our journey, mainly as I was occupied by serenading her with a tuneless version of Saturday Love as we drove through Thetford Forest (where I took the part of both Alex, and Cherelle). I would say it was special treat for high days and holidays – but it’s pretty much every Saturday, in our house… sugar.

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Dim Sumday

It’s been a little while since the Ewing and I have been out for Dim Sum Day, but a visit down south from my Aunt and Uncle in Yorkshire, combined with the news that my aunt’s favourite yum cha stop in Leeds - Ho’s on Vicar Lane - has closed, made it easy to decide what we were going to eat.

Where to eat was scarcely more problematic as we had also recently discussed walking across the Isle of Dogs - home of the Lotus floating restaurant, sitting on the Inner Millwall Dock - and under the Greenwich foot tunnel. Its curious waterside location, in the shadow of Canary Wharf and the looming Baltimore Tower, made it the perfect starting point for a Sunday stroll to the South of the River, as well as being a curiosity in its own right.

The last time I visited was in the dark and distant past, before I started writing the blog. An almost mythical time where I still took lots of photos of my lunch, but didn’t post them on Instagram or write about it afterwards. I do remember the meal though, if only for the reason that a rather bullish the Ewing ordered curried whelks, being quite adamant that ‘I like all types of seafood’. It turns out that this precludes whelks, a lesson she has learnt from, unlike me, who persists in ordering strange gristly, knobbly bits of protein whenever I see them.

Sadly, the whelks have gone, although they still offer cold baby octopus in curry sauce alongside chicken feet and Sunday specials including jelly fish, trotters, honey roast ribs, and beef shank, which I thought sounded pretty interesting, but was dissuaded from trying by the voices of reason.

In the end we stuck to a more prosaic array of dumplings – there’s nothing wrong with the classics – that included delicate scallop with the crunch of water chestnut; shui mai, with their fluted open tops and minced pork and shrimp filling; virginal har gau, stuffed with bouncy prawns (still my fave); and fragrant Chinese chive, the jade green flecks showing through their translucent wrappers.

Some good roast pork puffs - with their friable lard-enriched pastry and sweet and sticky filling - and a trio of Ewing’s beloved puffy steamed buns, filled with more sticky char sui, quickly followed. 

Customary custard tarts were just so-so, although I still always love the fact eating pudding in the middle of your main course is thoroughly encouraged during a yum cha feast, even if they came garnished with a thoroughly retro sprig of curly parsley.

There were also rolls – deep-fried wonton pastry filled with rich shredded peking duck and hoi sin sauce, and slippery cheung fun filled with sweet shredded pork in a pool of tangy black vinegar and a crispy beancurd and prawn roll that was snaffled before I could get a pic.

And we finished things with an array of fried things including batons of crispy salt and pepper squid, my Aunt's favourite, and some slightly oily prawn croquettes that benefited from a liberal dredging in perky chilli sauce.

Overall the food, while not quite up to the location, was a step up from many jaded Chinatown stalwarts, and service efficient and friendly, despite there being a full house, and everything was ably washed down with pots of very good jasmine tea, icy bottles of Tsingtao and pints of draught Sun Lik. Prices all seemed pretty reasonable, around the four quid mark for each dim sum dish, although I’m not sure what the total damage came to as my Uncle, very kindly, treated us. 

Best of all was the postprandial stroll with lovely people in the glorious sunshine afterwards; the stillness of the city shimmering on Dim Sumday. 

Thursday, 7 September 2017

Mason and Co.

Recently the Ewing and I found ourselves meandering down by the canal in Hackney Wick, whiling away some time before the evening session of the World Athletics Championships. While a great many of the spectators we saw amongst us were attired in athletic gear themselves, with many jogging or cycling along the water to the stadium, I saw it as the opportunity to exercise my elbow by sitting in the sun and drinking a few beers at Mason and Company.

Found at Here East - part of a campus on the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park including broadcast facilities, office spaces and a state-of-the-art data centre and providing a home for the creative and digital industries – Mason and Co. is a swish - tiled and IKEA-esque Scandi wood - craft beer bar that also offers Italian-inspired food from street food traders Capish?

As it was the start of London Beer City, and Mason and Co. had hosted the opening event, it would have been remiss to not sample both of the festival's official beers.

The first, and the one I was most excited by, was Agadoo - a saison brewed with pineapple and northern hemisphere hops by a team led by Five Points. The second a Pacific Pale Ale, made with southern hemisphere hops in a collaboration led by Fourpure. In the end both were decent enough, if unspectacular, although I was a little let down by the lack of tropical fruit flavour in the former.

To eat I picked the meatball sub, which to some may sound a bit like the kind of American idea that should have remained just that. But, as I spent my teenage years eating slices of cold lasagne wedge in pieces of French stick after a night on the tiles, the idea of homemade pork and beef balls, in a rich tomato sauce and topped with taleggio definitely appealed.

I wasn’t disappointed, with the real standout in the piece being the polenta-crusted sub roll, that elevated the whole shebang to another level and also soaked up the sauce nicely, making it mercifully not as messy to eat as I first feared.

The jalapeño salsa, that comes as an optional extra with the sub, was exceptional. Ferociously, sinus-clearingly hot, yet you could still taste the sweet and fruity notes from the fresh chillies. Genuinely one of the best hot sauces I’ve tried for a long while, and I speak as someone who can barely shut my fridge without something with a slightly dodgy name and a colon clearing effect falling out.

The calco e pepe balls – orbs of deep fried spaghetti - were off the menu so I settled for a side of pickle slaw. While I love slaw as much as the next man, a little more perhaps, it is a little bit harder to get excited about shredded cabbage, especially as there are so many bad iterations out there, this, however, was very good;  crunchy and tangy and with the perfect amount of pickle-flecked dressing (although I couldn’t resist another squidge of mayo across the top #mayo4lyfe).

Despite my best attempts to get her to order the porcheta, The Ewing resisted and instead went for the beef braciole, braised steak, stuffed with garlic, parsley, pecorino and chili, then slow braised with onion and bone marrow. Served on a glazed buttermilk roll with melted Taleggio and pickled red onions.

Again, it was a pretty flawless sarnie, sweet tender beef, oozy cheese and the punch of chilli heat and pickled onions - and again it managed to maintain its structural integrity to the end, despite a decent application of rich gravy.

We also shared a helping of Italo fries that came topped with 6 hour beef shin ragu, provolone cheese sauce and pink pickled onions, which were quite as glorious as their description suggests.

Owner Ed Mason also owns Leeds legend, Whitelock’s Ale House, so they were also showcasing some of the best of the Yorkshire craft beer scene for the Beer City celebrations. Of the one we tried the Yorkshire Dale's Pale - a northern riff on Oskar Blues Dales Pale brewed in conjunction with Kirkstall - and Other PPL, a lactose IPA from Zapato Brewery, were the standouts.

Being well fed and even better lubricated made the evening an even more enjoyable one, even if the climax of the evening saw plucky Laura Muir being hustled into fourth place in the Women’s 1500m final. If only they awarded medals for beer-drinking….