Thursday, 26 April 2018

Where the magic happens

I've been very lucky in my life so far to travel to some great places and enjoy some pretty awesome experiences but there are some wonders in this world that, have so far eluded me; Machu Picchu; the midnight sun, the Temples of Angkor, Tottenham beating Chelsea at the Bridge in the league and, until a couple of weeks ago, the Magic Rock Tap.

It may have taken us nearly three years since they first opened their doors, but the long Easter weekend meant the the Ewing and I finally had the opportunity to make the short detour down the A642 to Huddersfield, while en route to my aunt and uncle's in Leeds. And, after all the anticipation, I'm damned if I'm not going to write something about it despite the beer making things a little fuzzy (don't worry, I wasn't  behind the wheel...)

While it may have been a short detour from our usual route, sitting in slow moving traffic through all the 'smart motorway' roadworks on the M1 hadn't left me feeling very clever. So hooray for beer, the  cause and solution to all life's problems (credit to Mr Simpson), that made the snaking traffic of a bank holiday weekend seem like a distant memory, We even got a bonus group of rowdy accountants enjoying their office party, who were pretty amusing once they moved out of my way to the bar.

As you might expect, there's quite the selection to ponder over, with 10 keg lines and and five on cask plus a variety of limited edition tallboys and core range cans in the fridge. I fancied something frothy and refreshing to start, so kicked off with a pint of hat trick on cask. Described as a 'town pale ale', it's brewed in association with Huddersfield Town to commemorate their three league titles and is only available locally. While it remains a difficult subject in the 'craft' world, I like cask beer, and Magic Rock make some of the best.

The Ewing went straight in for one of the big boys with a third of Hedonic Escalation; a tropical IPA released only a week earlier that's 'judiciously hopped with Simcoe, Ekuanot, HBC 438, Huell Melon and Motueka and fermented with Brett Trois', a complicated description for a beer that was simply excellent, with all the tropical fruit flavours that hop heads love.

They also serve food, with a commendable section of crisps and snacks behind the bar and a Tap Yorkshire ploughman's with Bolster Moor Farm pork pie, honey roasted ham, Wenslydale cheese; or vegan curry and samosas served from Tuesday to Thursday and homemade pastries also available of Wednesdays. 

At the weekends there is a ever-changing selection of vendors who pitch up in their yard but, being as it was Easter, Sabroso Street had rocked up a day early with their jazzy ex-horse trailer serving Mexican-inspired street food.

To start we shared some freshly fried tortillas with guac, soured cream and pickled jalapenos. A tried and tested combo that makes the perfect foil for a coldie. I also tried the chicken tacos; Mexican shredded chicken with guacamole and a lime salsa; that were a little underwhelming, even with a good shake of chipotle sauce and more chopped chillies on top.

The Ewing's pambanzo - a broiche bun stuffed with shredded confit pork, pink pickled onions and more guacamole - was back on the money. Salty, smoky, fatty, spicy; perfect beer fodder. I'm hoping she might put a comment here and elaborate on her dinner a little better than I can as I was well into my ale by this point.

Amongst the other beers we tried, I liked the Chronostasis; a classic west coast inspired IPA with a hefty lick of bitterness; and another newbie, Mind Control; a DIPA mashed with oats and wheat for a smooth and creamy mouthfeel that belied the 8 per cent abv.

The Ewing also couldn't resist their Engine Engine Number 9 on keg, their take on a berliner weisse flavoured to taste like cherry cola; a fascinating a beer I've had before on can and which tasted even better here. Hiding in the background are a couple of extra cans I picked up for my uncle and cousin. While it was pretty tough to part with them, there were plenty of cold beers in the fridge ready for us on our arrival in Leeds.

Fortuitously, in a twist I hardly dreamt possible, not only did we have a Great Friday with our visit to the Tap but less than 48 hours later, I got to watch Spurs (alas not in person, but on the sofa at my Aunt and Uncle's, beer in hand, which is the next best place) finally stick it to The Blues in their own back yard. A mere 28 years since Gary Lineker scored the last winner. Even Jesus would struggle to pull off a miracle like that for Easter Sunday.

Wednesday, 18 April 2018

Breakfast at Browns

I've eaten a fair few fry-ups recently, which is slightly unfortunate as I'm going to California in a couple of weeks and far from being beach body ready, I'm more in danger of being harpooned if I get too close to the shoreline.

Still, where's the fun in porridge? Especially if you're in the City of Dreaming Spires for the weekend and you've got the opportunity to go to Brown's Cafe for a proper breakfast.

Inside is old old school fomica and closely packed wooden tables and chairs, pretty much how it's always been; in fact a recent episode of Endeavour - the pre-Morse Morse, set in the 60s - featured scenes that were shot here and pretty much the only thing they had to change were the menu boards.

Speaking of the menu, of course it had to be the May Day breakfast - named for the annual Oxonian celebrations that start on nearby Magdalen Bridge - twice, once with beans and fried bread for me and once with grilled tomato and toast for the Ewing.

Tea is still made in an urn, with loose tea leaves and is the colour of Frank Butcher when attempted to woo Pat in his rotating bow tie (and little else) and strong enough to stand your spoon up in. Proper stuff.

One handy thing about being an ouef-avoider is there’s always scope for swapsies, in this case half a grilled tomato for my egg, a deal I was more than happy with, although I also got hit up for a spoonful of my beans. The other constituent parts were all present and correct – comfortingly paste-like sausage, two rashers of thick unsmoked back bacon, a scattering of token mushrooms and a couple of discs of black pudding that weren’t quite as crisp as I would have liked, but I like them to be fried until they are black on black.

Toast, slightly irritatingly, comes perched on top of your breakfast, which saves on washing up but makes it much harder to construct a cheeky bacon sarnie on the side. Again, in the spirit of sharing, we went 50/50 on our sliced carbs – half toast and half fried slice.

Reader, I can tell you it was a revelation. Whilst a good fried slice remains a god amongst mere men as part of a breakfast, anyone who has ever eaten a whole slice, or heaven forfend, two, at breakfast time will probably tell you there day all went downhill from there. The first, crisp triangle, anointed with a few sweet beans and a slash of spicy brown sauce, slips down easily enough, but soon it becomes an greasy trudge to the finish line followed by a packet of Rennies for lunch.

If chops, chips and cups of creosote coloured tea aren't your thing, then the Portuguese heritage of the owners mean you can also get a bolo de arroz- a kind of Portuguese muffin made of rice flour and wrapped in a distinctive skirt of lettered paper - or the perennial favourite, the pasteis de nata, or custard tart.

After just half a fried slice even the Ewing couldn't manage one of these crisp and flaky beauties, with their wobbly centres and burnished tops, but they were still fine a couple of days later, accompanied by a pot of strong coffee.

While I'm looking forward to a couple of weeks of In-N-Out burgers, Dodger Dogs, french dip sandwiches and avocado on everything nothing beats a good British fried breakfast; I just hope I can still get in my shorts.

Monday, 9 April 2018

Happiness at the Magdalen Arms

A few (ahem) years ago my school careers adviser asked me what I wanted to do when I grew up. To which I replied 'restaurant critic in the Sunday Times'. Which, seeing as I haven't really grown up yet, would still stand as my answer.

I am therefore taking it as a fateful sign that a career change could be impending as AA Gill's visit to the Magdelen Arms - chronicled in the wonderful Table Talk - happened to fall on the day after the boat race, just like ours did nearly six years later.

Possibly one reason I don't already write for the ST relates to what my adviser termed my 'energy efficiency', an epithet I was secretly rather proud of; everyone knows that procrastination and productivity are secretly bedfellows.  As a case in point, and to save my self some time thinking of my own words, here are a few from the master's visit, that I found when aimlessly Googling, to set the scene.

Oxford, the day after the Boat Race, was humming with young people in all their messy, bright, sloppy, gabby, gaudy fecundity, like streets of blown tulips.
Nobody mentioned the Boat Race, nor that little man who leapt into the river to protest at, what? Elitism? Which was funny, as rowers are, in many ways, the bottom of the food chain, damp and muscly, mocked for their bookshelf shoulders and bullock’s thighs.

This is a big pub, with a restaurant set behind screens at one end of a barn-like room. It’s more pubby than gastro. The Blonde and I took Jemima Khan, the film producer John Batsek and Annabel Rivkin. A lot of big tables of cluster dates. This kitchen was recommended to me by one of the best cooks I know. It is the gustatory outreach of the Anchor & Hope in Lambeth, where I recently had some exceptional ducks’ hearts on toast after The Duchess of Malfi. It has done a great deal of epicurean proselytising and is the best template I know for pub food.

At the risk of sending my last remaining readers off to The Times bookshop, to read some proper food criticism (and also to avoid being sued for copyright) I'll give the ctrl alt v keys a long enough rest to say that my company on the day was the, no less exciting, Ewing. And while there were no blown tulips, there was a jaunty vase of daffs to provide a backdrop to my fino sherry aperitif.

The menu is a roll call of big, butch things you want to eat that changes on a a daily basis, sometimes twice daily, so it doesn't matter too much when you drip trails of olive oil, from heels of homemade bread you've dragged through a golden puddle of the stuff, all over it as you're trying to make up your mind.

Actually, that's a bit of a fib, as they also update the menu online, meaning I had already been perusing it on the train that morning, desperately crossing all fingers and toes that the Hereford steak and ale suet crust pie with buttered greens was on the menu. I wasn't disappointed, although the Ewing may have been a little, as she had seen the braised lamb neck for two with dauphinoise spuds and pickled red cabbage.

As you can see, she was excited after it arrived, and frankly, with such a bronzed and burnish sight, not glimpsed since we walked along the beach in Fano one summer in the height of August, who wouldn't be?

It was equally inviting down below, huge chunks of melting beef in a deep, glossy gravy with the odd tangle of sweet onion and, unusually, a chunk of red pepper or two that wasn't amiss in the richly beery morass. The dish of perfectly crisp buttered greens served alongside was a joyous tribute to the wonder of cruciferous veg. A truly first rate Sunday lunch.

As there's never too much of a good thing, the Ewing went for a pastry-based finale as well. A generous wodge of crisp-bottomed pear and almond tart with a pillowy frangipane centre, accompanied by a ball of good vanilla ice cream.

If I was really getting into the spirit, I'd probably have described my buttermilk pudding with poached rhubarb as wobbling like a stroke's pectoral as they pass under Barnes Bridge, but, thankfully, I'm not.

The Blonde had also ordered it, and said it had too much gelatine; perhaps they had heeded the write-up, as mine was near on perfect and, as a unwanted consequence, under near constant attack from the Ewing across the table.

Obviously Adrian gets the last word; the Magdalen has a lot to smile about. A smile, as opposed to its burlesque sister, the laugh, doesn’t necessarily imply humour, or comedy, rather a general happiness, wellbeing, a shared conviviality, and it doesn’t have to be out loud.