Wednesday, 19 December 2018

Finding my vocation

It wouldn't be our biannual trip to Leeds without a trip into town before we go home. As it was our December visit - for Christmas Number One - we also decided to involve some festive shopping. Theoretically that means a few hours happily browsing, while picking up the perfect gifts for all our friends and family. In reality that means bickering our way around two shops, max, followed by a row because it's been at least two hours since breakfast.

This trip was surprisingly peaceful - apart from a disagreement about which way to go beside a giant illuminated reindeer, which I'm blaming firmly on Google Maps - although I was exceedingly happy when my Uncle John called while were we in Lush, meaning I could duck outside to escape the eye-watering aroma of patchouli and despair. Even better he told us he was also in town, and did we want to meet for lunch.

Of course we wanted to meet for lunch. And where better than the very recently opened Assembly Underground, located on the previous site of the former Leeds School Board building on Calverley Street (as I was reliably informed by my Uncle). Run by Hebden Bridge's Vocation Brewery it features fifty taps of beer, a hidden cocktail bar and an open dining hall area featuring grub from Slap & Pickle, Felafel Guys, Punjabi street curry specialist Jah Jyot, Leodis Coffee, and Bread and Butter Churrasco BBQ.

Uncle John went for a classic pint of  what I *think* was Vocation's Heart and Soul on cask (I was somewhat distracted at the time, trawling through the vast beer menu myself). Whatever it was, look at it - all things bright and beautiful, glittering in the afternoon winter sun. He nearly managed a second pint, but a queue at the bar saw him fall back on plan b; a very nice looking flat white from Underground Coffee.

Somewhat overwhelmed with choice, I asked the barman for some 'murk' and was rewarded with a schooner of Vocation's Where's Dan, a delicious, opaque NEIPA that tasted, and looked, like hoppy pineapple Just Juice.  The Ewing, our designated driver, also went fruity with a half of the Vocation agave and lime radler. 

I hadn't already had a surfeit of red meat on my visit - with roast sirloin of beef for Christmas Dinner Number One, followed by a game pie at the House of Trembling Madness the day after - I decided to complete the hat trick with a big ass burger at Slap and Pickle.

I went for the light option with the Baconator and a side of Big Mick's fries. The burger - double cheese, double bacon, double beef, iceberg and burger sauce - was one of the best I've had this year. Salty, oozy, greasy, drippy, just like all the best things in life.

The loaded fries, as you can probably tell from the name, riffed on a popular burger chain's popular eponymous burger and came topped with burger crumble, cheese sauce, burger sauce, mustard, lettuce and pickles. Eat 'em while they're hot for maximum pleasure, although I do secretly love the odd cold and congealed chip that gets welded to the bottom of the dish.

My Uncle and the Ewing went for a bit of spice from Jah Jyot, Punjabi inspired Indian street food traders who have ended up in West Yorkshire via Horsham in West Sussex. Alongside curries and thalis they also offer a range of filled dosas, samosas and tikka wraps made with fenugreek chappatis.

Both chose a selection of curries including the Amritsar chicken with potato and fresh coriander and a vegan ajma (red kidney bean) curry with fenugreek seeds, which was excellent. Alongside were rice and the aforementioned chapattis, flecked green with the aromatic leaves.

Of course a trip into town wouldn't be complete without a visit to the Kirkgate market for provisions before the long schlep home -  which on this occasion included ten sirloins for a tenner and over three kilos of limes for two quid. having said that, I skipped the arseholes and tripe. My wife says that's the standard of my drunken Christmas conversation already...

Thursday, 6 December 2018

I said lady, step inside my Hyundai

So, it’s finally happened. Our trusty drive Steven Archibald (Archie) has given up the ghost; broken down; kaput; we’ve cruised ‘round the hood with the (manually wound down, if we can find the winder in the foot well) windows down for the final time.

While it was sad (sad? I was DEVASTATED - TE) when his head gasket finally blew, after 13 years of faithful service it was hardly a huge surprise. And now he can finally enjoy his time in the sun, it also meant we could think about a nippier replacement. Or certainly one with central locking; and less rust.

Which is how we came to take delivery of Beck - named after a lyric in Debra, one of the greatest falsetto funk numbers you’re ever likely to hear and already on heavy rotation on the stereo – with his wondrous Champion Blue paint job (a special release for the World Cup, they saw us coming) and a whole host of electrical mod cons with the potential to go wrong…

And after several long weeks of being bus wankers and utilising shanks’s pony, there was much excited anticipation for our first Sunday spin. And, whilst not quite the glamorous hills of Glendale, a jaunt straight down the A40 for breakfast in Brent seemed like a pretty good second choice. What have the Hollywood Hills got on the beauty of Hangar Lane gyratory.

Yet another Eater tip, this time from their 5 restaurants to try this weekend, a Friday column that tips the unsung and the far-flung, with the proviso that all suggestions must not be featured in either the Eater 38 Essential map, nor the monthly-updated Heatmap, and must be outside Zone 1.

Luckily, it often features somewhere from around my old endz, with exotic places such as Southall, Harrow and Rayners Lane getting a shout. A few weeks ago it was Dosa Express. Now, I can get pretty incredible dosas less than a ten minute stroll from my house, but that's no fun when you have a new motor to show off. I was also fascinated by the picture used to illustrate the story, showing the vast menu made of laminated sheets of A4, that stretched neatly across one wall and around the corner.

It's probably best to google the menu before you go, especially if you're indecisive, as the choice is vast (it also covers most the wall opposite) and is arranged with absolutely no rhyme or reason. Failing that, just look around and see what other people are eating, or what is being freshly cooked on the hotplate next to the counter, at least that way you can avoid food envy.

To drink we had ginger coffee and sweet, fudgy cashew and almond milk. I say we, but I found they smelt a little too much like scented draw liners and left them for my wife, who was hugely happy to have something sweet and soothing alongside all the fire and spice.

As well as dosa they offer a handful of other dishes, including vada, or lentil doughnuts, that were piled up temptingly on the counter, spinach pakoras and veggie samosas. We started with papri chaat, papri translating as wafer, or discs of crisp pastry, and chaat meaning 'to lick'. The pastry discs are broken up and layered with chickpeas, tamarind chutney, onions, yoghurt, chilli and fresh herbs, making a crunchy, sweet, sour and spicy snack.

We also ordered some chilli garlic paneer, that was served in a gargantuan portion that the photo doesn't quite do justice to. An classic Indo Chinese dish, the cheese curd cubes are stir fried with spring onions in a sweet and fiery sauce with huge amounts of fragrant garlic, chilli and ginger, served here with a token leaf of crunchy iceberg lettuce.

Obviously I had spent most of the week dissecting the menu but in the end eschewed the additions of cheese, salad, chutney and noodles, plumping instead for a classic rava masala dosa. Made with semolina, which helps give it its distinctive lacy appearance, the crisp pancake had been folded around a generous filling of spiced potato. Certainly beats cornflakes.

Alongside was a ladle of the familiar sambar, a thin vegetable stew with lentils and spices, a rich tomato and onion chutney and a virginal coconut chutney. The latter always looks so invitingly cool and fresh, yet ends up being the most insidiously fiery of the lot. Here was no exception, and I could just about note the sympathetic glances from the ladies behind the counter through the tears in my eyes.

The Ewing went off piste with the pesarattu paneer masala dosa, a pancake made with moog daal (green gram flour) instead of urad dal (black gram flour) and stuffed full with spiced potato, peppers, onion and shredded paneer cheese. This was a top rate dosa, although I'm not sure you could really distinguish a huge difference between this and a standard dosa, other than the slightly bilious tinge and a slightly spongier texture. 

And here he is, the main man himself, ready to whisk us away for some more culinary adventures. He's even got cup holders.

Friday, 30 November 2018

I butter the toast, if you lick the knife

There was a time, just after I started writing this blog, where I would excitedly scour Time Out (before it became a free sheet I still had a paid subscription) looking for exciting restaurants and places to eat. Holidays would be meticulously planned around local specialities, the more outlandish (AKA inedible) the better, and birthdays and anniversary's would be spent in fancy pubs and restaurants, preferably the kind you could blow a months wages getting horribly drunk on fancy cocktails and forget what you'd actually had for dinner.

While increasingly real life has impinged on this approach somewhat, mostly my living breathing moments still revolve around what I'm going to put in my mouth next (behave). And while I've long since eschewed all the trendy places and the hype - currently my money is going on far more prosaic things; most recently repairing my oven. If I haven't got money for anything else, at least I can heat up things at home - I still love adventuring anywhere in search of a good feed.

Which is how we ended up on the streets of Walthamstow on a sunny Saturday morning, in search of Etles, an unassuming-looking restaurant that is currently on the 38 essential London restaurants on Eater.

An unassuming place on the High Street, owned and run by Turkic Muslims from Yili in the far west of Xinjiang, it's also the first authentic Uyghur restaurant in town. The short menu features food that connects central Asia (flat breads and lamb pilaf) with the more familiar Chinese classics (kung pao chicken and ma po tofu) with a focus on hand pulled noodles and dumplings.

There is no alcohol on the menu (although I believe you can BYO), but at 11.30 in the morning, and having sunk a few in Seven Sisters the day before, I was OK with that. The Ewing went for her favourite ayran, a salted yoghurt drink, while I went with an icy can of Diet Coke. That authentic, life-giving, nectar.

I may have talked about kidneys on the blog before, more specifically about how they are one of the few things the Ewing eschews. Even the tiny little delicate rabbit’s kidneys we ate at Le Manoir aux Quat'Saison after our wedding were politely pushed to the side. Buoyed by reading very good things about the grilled (I’m guessing lamb) kidneys here, I persuaded her to give a skewer of them a go. Reader, as usual, I was wrong.

Not only did she refuse to eat them, but I remembered I really wasn’t much of a fan. Especially with the faint prickle of a hangover, amplified by the liberal sprinkling of chilli, bouncy texture and the faintly uric tang, that Mr Bloom enjoyed so much, that makes eating them seem a little like a bush tucker challenge.

If you like offal then certainly don't let me put you off. I still finished them all, and was glad I did, but I much preferred the skewers of lamb - smoky from the grill and slightly chewy with little chunks of sweet, charred fat. A very good introduction of what was to come.

The boiled turgur dumplings are very similar to jiaozi (think Jen Cafe in Soho), with thick, springy wheat flour wrappers although they are filled with 'chopped calf', instead of the more familiar pork. Like their more famous bretheren, they are served with black vinegar and chilli oil for dipping, .  although they also serve smaller dumplings, shaped a bit like tortellini, filled with lamb and onion and served in a broth.

Hand pulled noodles come in three varieties. There are flat, ribbon like noodles in the served in Da pan ji (‘big plate chicken’) – a stew also featuring spuds, chicken and plenty of Sichuan pepper. Possibly the most famous dish of the region, this is one many people may be familiar with from trying at Silk Road in Camberwell.

Thinner noodles – similar to pici or  udon - are served as lagman, a dish of boiled noodles with a separate bowlful of meat sauce, or chaomian (also known as dingding somän) where the noodles are cut into short lengths and are wokked with beef or lamb, peppers and tomato. We went for the latter, and were rewarded with a deep meaty sauce and chewy noodles, sprinkled with sesame seeds, that together tasted like the dashing love child of a spag bol and a stir fry.

We were too full for the homemade honey cake, but the Ewing did take a handful of sweets that accompanied the - eminently reasonable - bill, to keep her going on our next leg of our trip, to the Wild Card Brewery.

Here we carried on celebrating the end of my self-imposed booze free month (lets not talk about last Friday) with a pint of their super lovely and extra frothy, neipa. All donations for my Movember efforts gratefully received for the beer fund. I've got some catching up to do over Christmas.

Sunday, 25 November 2018

I used to think that the day would never come

When we were planning our wedding the Ewing likes to think she was happy to let me organise everything. And she was. Apart from a steady stream of random requests – such as a suckling pig for our wedding breakfast, a chocolate wedding cake, a Vivienne Westwood wedding dress and New Order’s Bizarre Love Triangle on the playlist – that she casually threw into the mix. And, of course, I made sure she got all those things. Even BLT, which was far from my favourite New Order track. I’ve grown to love it though, as it’s impossible to hear it without thinking of looking at my wife, wide-eyed and full of excitement of starting the next chapter of our life together (or anticipating the chocolate cake at our wedding breakfast, I can never be quite sure).

Somehow New Order remain a band the Ewing has never seen live - although I saw them at Reading in ’98, where they were joined on stage by Keith Allen for a rousing encore of World in Motion, a fact I regularly like to mention to her – so she was ultra excited to get tickets for their only UK date this year, at the wonderful Ally Pally.

Such an auspicious occasion demanded a good feed beforehand, and so we ‘took the Victoria Line to Latin America’ for lunch at Pueblito Paisa. A thriving café that fronts an indoor market in Seven Sisters making up the heart of the South American community in North London. 

Despite labouring under a recent compulsory purchase order that would see the building raised to the ground and transformed into flats, the place was buzzing on a Friday afternoon with locals tucking in to strong coffee and beef and chicken empanadas and kids drinking tropical milkshakes made with exotic fruits such as soursop and guava and custard apples.

The set lunch menu, chalked up by the kitchen hatch, is just nine quid for two courses, and accordingly must be one of the biggest bargains in town. The Ewing started with a bowl of sopa de mariscos, a bowlful of creamy coconut broth, subtly spiced and crammed full of mussels, prawns and squid. Our waitress, who was an utter gem, also bought some green chilli salsa, which was delivered with a smile and a warning. Of course this didn’t stop me from scarfing some while waiting for my food.

At the weekend (Friday to Sunday) they also offer a Peruvian menu with classics such as pulpo gallego (octopus with paprika and boiled potatoes) and lomo saltado (stir fried beef fillet, served with rice and chips). I chose the classic ceviche to start, possibly the most famous Peruvian export (although, a certain marmalade-loving bear might take exception to that).

Classically made with sea bass, here they had used chunks of haddock, 'cooked' in tiger's milk, a mix of limes juice, red onion, salt and chillies, and served with a red chilli sauce, boiled sweet potatoes and the crunchy roasted corn kernels. A thrilling mix of textures and flavours served in a generous portion which meant I was happy to overlook the Ewing's straying fork.

To follow she enjoyed sudado pescado, yet more fish - species undetermined, but possibly bream -  in a rich tomato and onion sauce and served with white rice, red beans and yellow plantain, for a triple carb hit. Simple yet exciting stuff with nicely cooked fish, earthy beans and sweet banana.

I also had plantains for my main (from the Columbian starters menu), but this time served as patacones; discs of starchy green banana that are fried once before being pounded until flat and fried again. On their own, they are an acquired taste, rather bland and starchy, but mine were improved by being served con carne desmechada, or with shredded meat. Usually beef, here I think it was pork shoulder, slow cooked until it broke down into a tangle of spicy shreds.

Despite our best intentions to not let lunch become an all afternoon boozing session, our waitress was very persuasive when offering to brings us more icy cold Cusquena, gleefully encouraging us to clink bottles 'kiss, kiss!' every time she bought us another round.

Several beers later we finally peeled ourselves away from our window seat vantage point, watching the hustle and bustle of the Tottenham High Road, but not before we had picked up some pandebono, or Columbian cheese bread, and some guava and duclce de leche stuffed doughnuts, which lead to a 'Roscoe with a roscon' moment, pretty amusing when you are already half cut at half four in the afternoon.

And New Order? Simply perfect; two and a half hours of peerless pop, taking in the Balearic beats of Vanishing Point, the driving guitars of Crystal and the irrepressible indie charms of Your Silent Face, before ending with a trio of Joy Division tracks. And, of course, a rousing rendition of Bizarre Love Triangle. No, I've never met anyone quite like you before...
(Me neither and I love you very much. Thank you for planning our wedding and giving me everything I ever wanted - TE).

Thursday, 8 November 2018

Cakes and ale

I’ve finally reached the age where a birthday seems to bring more tears of sadness than joy. Whilst I’m not quite at full blown sobbing (or fibbing while filling in forms), as I desperately try to cling onto my (long gone) youth, there is a kind of rheumy-eyed nostalgia that comes with ticking off each annual milestone in the passing of time.

It’s not so much being old I find difficult (save for that bit of gyp in my right hip and the creaking if I stand up too suddenly), as, in many ways my life has become immeasurable enriched as more candles are added to every cake. It’s more the remembrance of things past I find hard sometimes. So, like Proust and his madeleines, on my most recent birthday I sought out some of the things I remembered fondly from birthdays when growing up. While of course accompanied by the irrepressible Ewing, the person with whom I hope to share many more birthdays with.

Although sometimes I’m not quite sure she feels the same – especially after she had the luck to be the designated driver on a two hour car drive to the Tiny Rebel Brewery in Rogerstone, the first stop on the birthday tour, while listening to my wailing along to my carefully curated playlist of birthday songs. Although, this wasn’t too different to most car rides in our household in all honesty.
Being a co-pilot meant I could have my pick of silly ABV birthday beers and I started with But Did You Die?, a NEIPA at a, not too ridiculous, 6.1% per cent. It made the perfect start to the day, a wonderfully smooth, fruity pint of murk that bought to mind ‘hop yoghurt’ and ‘juicy banger’ and all those wonderfully descriptive, slightly irritating, ‘craft’ epithets on Instagram, and looked like the kind of thing milkman would leave a pint of on your door step in the 80s.

I love chips and gravy and the Ewing loves cheesy chips -  although I admit this is a fact only recently discovered, despite being together for over a decade, when she turned up at home after a drunken night out clutching a styrofoam carton full of congealed goo while attempting to ravish me with unwanted drunken attention. Here we were both happy as they came smothered in welsh cheddar and beefy gravy, and they were bloody brilliant.

Less successful were the chicken wings with frambuzi hot sauce. The wings had been cooked perfectly and they had a good wallop of chilli heat, but I prefer a thick, sticky sauce that coats your face and fingers - and very often other random body parts as you eat them, and these were a little dry. It didn't stop the Ewing taking hers down with the precision of a serial killer. I've taken to sleeping with one eye open...

The Ewing is a fantastic baker but, as I remind her annually, she has only ever made me one birthday cake, on my first birthday we spent together. I let her off this year as they had a fabulous white chocolate cake on the bar, which went perfectly with a half a of their imperial chocolate Stay Puft marshmallow stout.

When I was growing up my birthday meal of choice was always rump steak, mushrooms, peas and chips. The height of sophistication for a 12 year old. In many ways I seem to have regressed as time has gone on and this year I was more than happy with the prospect of a burger at Meat and grill in Newport.

Of course there was Tiny Rebel beer - this time a can of Cwtch, their red ale - while the Ewing went into full party mode with a coke float. I'm usually too obsessed by my dinner to notice much else when I'm eating, but the two young girls holding hands on a date on the table next to us made me very happy, and nostalgic at the same time, remembering my furtive first dates as a teenager and how far things have come, even since those days.

Love was in the air, and I was certainly seduced by my burger featuring triple patties, triple cheese and half a dozen rashers of streaky bacon. While it sounds jaw-unhingingly monstrous, it was surprisingly understated and rather good. The Ewing made light work of her Asian special with sweet chilli slaw, sriratcha mayo and hoisin ketchup and rated the chips in the Maccy D's tier. High praise indeed. The slaw, chopped into fine chunks and not strands, was also excellent.

En route home we called into the Newport outpost of Tiny Rebel for a nightcap. And what better than a pint of Stay Puft mixed with a half of Lervig's 3 Bean, a huge 13 per center of a stout made with tonka, vanilla and cocoa beans. The standard advice might be don't mix your drinks, but sometimes you have to live a little, and anything that increases the chance of a birthday lick from the Ewing is alright with me.

Of course, this was a decision I regretted slightly more in the cold light of day. Luckily we made it to Newport's indoor market and picked up some beef sausages - infused with Tiny Rebel's Dirty Stop Out smoked ale - for breakfast. I may have been a year older (and felt it too) but with a sausage sarnie and cup of tea in hand, the only tears I was crying were of joy.