Wednesday, 29 August 2018

Seeing double

Walking up the street for Sunday lunch at Afghan restaurant Mazar felt a bit like a scene in the old Spiderman, where Spidey suddenly finds himself squaring up to an identically dressed doppelgänger. There, just across the road, no more than twenty metres away was Masa; a very similarly named Afghani restaurant with a similar interior and a similar menu. 

Even more confusingly, we had also previously eaten Sunday lunch at Masa - although I did find myself having to search the blog to confirm this, a perennial problem of eating out a lot coupled with general short-term memory loss – which added to the feeling of general discombobulation.

One thing that certainly did differ between our visits was the temperature. Previously, on our visit across the road, everything was festooned in tinsel and there were Christmas films on the TV (or so the blog tells me). Whereas this time the TV in the corner – another similar touch – was showing the European Road Cycling Championships, with Glasgow bathed in rare sun.

It was even hotter in Harrow, with the weather station down the road recording the highest temperature in the country. Only a few degrees shy of Mazar-i-Sharif, the Afghan city where the owner hails from and for which the restaurant is named.

The interior is a little more ramshackle that it’s slightly fancier rival across the road, with the decor somewhere between a takeaway shop – they also offer a menu of burgers and pizza - and a cosy family restaurant. The walls are dominated by pictures of Afghanistan, including one of the blue mosque, which the owner was very happy to come over and talk to us about when he saw the Ewing admiring it. In fact, she was so smitten with his descriptions that it went straight to the top of the holiday list, at least until she got home and saw the Foreign Office has advised against all non-essential travel there…

Thankfully, although a visit to this fascinating country remains off limits to all but the most intrepid explorer, there’s still a chance to experience some of the culture and Afghani cuisine in this corner of North West London. Eschewing the standard fast food options, we chose the family pack 1, a selection of different traditional dishes served with naan and salad.

A late start in the kitchen that morning meant we were warned it would be about an hour before the rice was ready. No matter, they had air con and the Ewing had her ayran, a slightly salty yogurt drink that, although the thought of it makes me feel a little queasy, is apparently just the ticket in the hot weather.

We started with Mantoo, Afgani parcels filled with lamb, onions and herbs and served topped with a sauce of yoghurt and dried mint. While these were likened to ravioli, a better comparison would be Chinese Jiaozi or Tibetan momo, dumplings with thick wheat wrappers stuffed with ground minced meat and then steamed.

Sabzi Palak, spinach fried with white leek & garlic, was very similar to a good saag bhaji, which I always think of as quite an understated achievement, seeing as most my efforts at cooking spinach end up oily or bitter or gritty or watery. And sometimes, most impressively, all of those things together.

There was also a dish of bamia – a stew of okra, another of my favourite veg. This little baby version had been cooked down with tomato and onions a lashing of olive oil, to form a rich sauce that avoided the gloopy gumminess that the ladies fingers can be prone to (behave at the back).

Skewers of marinated lamb and chicken were smoky and tender and were served with giant oval naan – it wouldn’t be a kebab without some bread - which was flatter and crisper than the more familiar puffy, tear dropped-shape. Its rigid construction made an excellent shovel for the remnants of the dish of strained yogurt, that the Ewing was determined not to waste.

Afghan food, our genial host told us, was better than Indian food as it was spiced, but not too spicy. Of course, I was too polite to challenge his point, but I was very thankful for a verdant dish of sauce - presented with an ominous warning - that proved the perfect blend of heat from chillies and freshness from coriander and parsley.

When the platter of  Qabili Palow finally emerged, it lived up to its billing of Afghanistan’s national dish. Meat (here lamb, on the bone) is slow cooked in stock and added to white rice, that takes on a deep colour from slow-cooked onions and spices, before being topped with plump raisins, slivers of fried carrots, and almonds. Whenever I think I’m not really a fan of rice, I eat a dish like this and have to reconsider my position. There were also plenty of leftovers to take home for dinner the next day.

For desert I was torn between the firni – traditional Afghan desert of set custard sprinkled with pistachios and almonds – and the hot ‘n’ crunchy pie, which I’m guessing is not a traditional desert, but had such an amazing name I wasn’t sure I cared. In the end it was a moot point, as I was far too full to eat anything else, although the owner very kindly gave us a dish of a barfi-like fudge with nuts and some sugared almonds, which the Ewing was very enamoured with.

Whereas when my favourite webbed warrior met his double, there was only going to be one winner, in the case of Mazar and Masa it’s win-win. Two great restaurants, twice the fun. I just wish one was a little closer.

Friday, 24 August 2018

Pork life (under canvas)

I’m rather fond of camping, in fact a few nights under canvas was the very first trip the Ewing and I went on together. We went about ten miles up the road, it rained pretty much constantly and our air bed had a slow puncture, but that just seemed to make it all the more exciting and romantic. Well, until we came to our final morning and the rabbit with mixamatosis turned up. My wife may laugh thinking back, but I still have nightmares.

As sure as a circle keeps going round, our most recent trip together was also camping, this time to the Pig Place, an hour up the M40, on the Oxon/Northants border, following a lovely visit a few years back. And yes, it rained, and our mattress developed a puncture. Although now, after a decade together, the drizzle and lying on the lumpy ground had lost its allure somewhat. We have upgraded to a better tent at least, so on this trip we were happy sitting in the porch, waiting for the black clouds to pass so we could light the stove and have a cuppa.

It did start out bright though, so we made the most of the new Trotters Bar, a trailer with glorious views over the Oxford Canal and Cherwell Valley. With Thatcher’s on draft or local cider available by the pint, as well as a large range of gins and other spirits. We enjoyed a cider with blackcurrant (very 90s uni days) and a strong scrumpy, while sinking into a couple of the sofas that are positioned in a great spot on the slope leading down to the water.

The whole place is pretty idyllic. Set on a smallholding – featuring the eponymous pigs, chickens and runner ducks, the best kind of duck – it’s a beautiful, but back to basics spot.  While there are no showers and the only water is from their own borehole, there is a well-stocked farm shop on site, as well as a trailer kitchen serving freshly prepared food that is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. 

Dinner options included sweet and sour pork or a pork balti (plus a couple of veggie choices) served with chips, rice or a jacket spud. I had the sweet and sour with chips, which was everything I hoped it would be. Lean chunks of loin, from the farm, in a tangy sauce with mixed pepper and pineapple sitting on top of a bed of excellent chips; hot and crispy and fluffy and all tasting even better after a couple of pints of cider. If your're lucky, you might even get a visit from Sid, although there was no way I was sharing.

We may have been going back to basics, but we hadn't abandoned civilisation completely. So, of course, a bottle of organic port was an essential nightcap. it may have gone some way to insulating against the cold, but it certainly didn't help with four o'clock moonlit stumbles to the Portaloo, or my head the next morning. I did get to see the sun rising over the canal though, so not all terrible.

If dinner was good, the brekkie was superb, as good as I remembered, maybe even better. And, even better than that, if you get up early enough (everyone gets up far too early when they're camping) you get to see the farm animals being fed. The sight of the pig losing his shit over a loaf of bread was quite something to behold. I think I've finally found my spirit animal.

Happily for my wife, I enjoyed my first meal of the day in a more relaxed manner, all while admiring the glorious view across the Oxfordshire countryside.  We both chose the full english and, although I’m not such a committed ouef-avoider now days, I haven’t moved much beyond omelettes and scrambled egg, so the Ewing had my brace. They offer hen or duck eggs (both from the farm) so she had two of each, although I only seemed to get half a slice of toast and a small chunk of sausage in return…

There were also fantastic bacon and sausages (relatives of our new friends) as well as mushrooms, properly hot baked beans (something of a skill in itself) and toast buttered right to the edges. As well as the most gorgeous view through the mini orchard of apple trees and across the canal.

While I hate to shatter the carefully crafted illusion that I'm basically Robinson Crusoe reincarnated - and I could repair the mattress by lashing together a few branches, while simultaneously rubbing a couple of stray twigs to start a fire to cook a spot of lunch I had fished and foraged - I must confess we spent the afternoon at the nearby retail park buying new camp beds, followed by watching the Spurs game at a nearby pub, where I foraged for Scampi Fries and cider instead.

Saturday night at the campsite saw the annual performance by the Mikron Theatre Company - who arrived by narrow boat from Yorkshire – performing Revolting Women, a story commemorating the centenary of the suffragettes. So of course, for the first time all weekend, it hammered down. In honour of their visit there was a barbecue with wild boar hot dogs and pulled pork rolls. Unfortunately I don’t have any evidence, but the Ewing retreated to eat her dinner in the car, which probably tells you all you need to know about the mood in camp….

Thankfully a couple of beers plus a very restful night on our new camp beds meant we could greet the, slightly grey but still dry, morning with renewed vigour. Especially when it involved  a feathered guest who had come to say hello, plus hot sausage sandwiches with lashings of oxford sauce and several mugs of steaming tea. All hail the electric kettle by the bore hole.

After managing to get the tent down and cram everything back into the boot just as the heaven's opened again, we smugly decamped down the road to the Coach and Horses in Adderbury, to a lovely traditional pub which also boasts what must be the best value Sunday lunch in the whole of Oxfordshire.

Despite not having a reservation, the landlord very kindly squeezed us in at the bar thanks to a late cancellation. And when our roasts appeared I could see why. Four quid for pork loin, which of course I had to round the weekend off with, or half a roast chicken and stuffing, served with no less than five roasties (and yes, Amy One Potato ate them all) plus boiled veg that tasted reassuringly like being back at my nan’s house again. Only this time we didn’t have to hear the stories about so-and-so over the road; and I didn’t have to do the washing up.

Even better was the fact that they had a pudding menu (two fifty each) that included jam roly poly and custard. One of my very favourite things in life and the perfect antidote (along with another pint of bitter for the non-designated driver) to the persistent drizzle that had (mercifully) started the moment we stuffed the last bit of camping gear in the car.

While it maybe in turns too hot, too cold, too wet, too windy. camping is still a great chance to relax, get back to nature and, best of all, have a good giggle. In fact, the Ewing loved it so much she's already bought a new super duper sleeping bag and booked our next trip for the August Bank Holiday. I've packed the port, painkillers and a poncho (bank holiday equals guaranteed rain). What else do you need?

Thursday, 16 August 2018

For whom the bell tolls

Last month the Ewing and I celebrated ten years together. Although we still may be a (fair) few years off getting a small feature on page 16 of the local paper, where we attribute our successful relationship to a finely balanced mix of my tolerance of her being late for everything and her tolerance of me saying 'I won't get drunk', then promptly getting sloshed, whenever she's the designated driver, I don't think we're doing too badly.

The venue for our celebratory lunch was the Bell Inn in Langford, a charming sixteenth century pub with low hanging beams and uneven floors and rooms at the back if you want to hunker down in this sleepy corner of the Cotswolds. They also have several tables outside, which meant we could fully take advantage of the glorious heatwave that had already turned most of the grass to scorched yellow dust and given us Brits something to really complain talk about.

As the Ewing was driving I started with half of Bobby's Lager, brewed in nearby Chipping Norton. We also shared a litre of Normandy cider, in the most wonderful old school bottle, while we chewed on perfectly blistered slices of home-baked sourdough anointed with peppery new season olive oil.

Giles Coren, on his visit, called the bone marrow and parsley flat bread (wrapped around slices of aged sirloin) 'the best mouthful of his life', but I tried not to let that put me off. Of course it was, as delicious as you would imagine wood-fired dough, spread with garlicky butter and strewn with wobbly nuggets of offal and grassy parsley to be. My only sadness being that, after wolfing down the bread and oil beforehand I didn’t have room for flat bread topped with chives and anchovy.

I was extremely excited to see fried chicken on the menu, and was even happier that it turned out like the best KFC you’ve never had; chunks of boneless thigh meat in a spicy breadcrumb coating served with an aioli that even rivalled the Colonel’s own special gravy (behave). And with eight pieces to a potion, it was ample enough for even The Ewing and I to share without incident.

I wanted the steak frites, which meant the Ewing wanted the steak frites. I’ve pretty much got over pretending I’m the food critic from the Sunday Times, but the idea of this still bothered me, and so I went with the wood-fired sole with seaweed butter. I’m guessing in a kind of homage to the slip sole served at the Sportsman in Kent, which I’ve also had the pleasure of eating. 

This was light and summery and served with a heap of crisp tenderstem, although I did miss my carbs, and ended up stealing a fistful of (very good) chips from my wife, plus a large glass of chilled rose, to keep my hydration levels up in the heat.

As well as the, plentiful chips, the Ewing also had a perfectly-cooked piece of beef (hanger?) with herb butter and a green salad. Wonderfully simple backstreet Paris bistro cooking, in the heart of the Cotswolds, and only £14, which seemed very fair value  for such a wonderful plate of food.

Although it was about a billion degrees, it’s never too hot for sticky toffee pudding, and this was a good ‘un. The date-studded sponge topped with a blob of rich yellow cream with a gentle lactic tang that cut through the pool of buttery toffee sauce. There’s something perversely English about enjoying a rib-sticking pud in the heat of summer, and here was no exception.

The Ewing went with the chocolate nemesis, a recipe first popularised by the infamous River CafĂ© version, that saw middle class housewives serving up ‘kind of cowpats’ all over the country. Here it was faultless, deeply rich and chocolatey while being both gooey and fluffy all at the same time and cut through perfectly with a bitter espresso to finish.

And, in case you have a little too much sympathy for my wife (it's understandable, I don't know why she puts up with me a lot of the time) she also got a few generous scoops of my pud too. Which, come to think of it, is probably the real reason we've stayed together all these years... and worth every single stolen spoonful. (love you darling xx - TE)

Wednesday, 8 August 2018

Somethin' Hot - Kiln

Sometimes there's nothing quite as glorious as an afternoon in your own company. A position I found myself in a couple of weeks ago when, at a lose end in the Big Smoke, I spent a happy hour or so drinking the fabulous cask Harveys and equally fabulous keg Kernal at the fabulous Harp in Covent Garden. 

Buoyed by booze and getting peckish, (the Harp does offer pork pies, as all good pubs should), I decided to schlep along to Soho where I hoped to find a stool to balance precariously on at Kiln, the Thai restaurant that everyone's still (just about, see below) talking about, that has just secured the top spot at this year's National Restaurant Awards.

In case you were wondering how this one ends, the answer is happily and without incident (unless you count the splashes of curry sauce over my favourite blue work shirt), but I feel it would be remiss not to at least mention the 'Boring Thai' racist chef storm, involving erstwhile Som Saa chef Shaun Beagley, that engulfed Twitter the very day after my visit. 

Now normally I avoid anything faintly concerned with currant affairs on the blog - not because I don't care about such things, but who wants to read about the depressing real world when you can read about how many puddings my wife has eaten this week (four, for the record. It's Wednesday). But this exploded in such a timely fashion that it seemed odd not to at least mention it, and the fact that racism, sadly, still seems insidious, and often in the places that you would least expect. So, if it even needed saying, don't be racist and don't be a dick, but, for now, back to the joys of my solo adventuring.

As I arrived pretty much as they opened for the evening (you can only book the downstairs tables, for larger groups) I got my pick of stools along the ground floor counter. Obviously, I headed straight down to the far end of the counter to the one seat that was little set away from the others, while the staff nodded approval in endorsement of my choice, and it's certainly a grand spot for people watching while not having to actually engage with anyone. Perfect. 

From my vantage point I could see the lamb skewers being cooked over charcoal, so it would have been remiss not to order one, alongside an icy cold tankard of Hop House 13 lager. I suppose the big question is do they measure up to Silk Road's lamb kebabs, to which I say probably. And while you can have two and a half skewers at SR for the price of one of these, any saving is cancelled out by the bus to Camberwell.

Larb is probably the only dish ever to have made mince sexy. A 'meat salad', the most fabulous juxtaposition of words, that is most commonly eaten in Laos and the Isan region of Thailand. It can be prepared in a multitude of different ways, but I've mostly enjoyed it dressed with lime juice, fresh herbs and fish sauce and mixed with roasted ground rice.

Here it was made with roughly chopped raw beef and a healthy dose of chilli, like a tartare on steroids. Chunks of cucumber helped salve the thrilling spicy/sour burn of each bite. Not flavours for the faint-hearted, but an utter joy, and all mine.

The sour turmeric curry with turbot was outstanding. When I’m pretending my opinions are important (quite a lot of the time) I like to opine that turbot is my favourite fish. Mainly because my Mum bought some when I went round for dinner years ago, from the Transit van that used to come down one a week from Grimsby, then spent the whole time telling us it was seventeen quid for three pieces, which seemed like the most incredible extravagance for a Tuesday. 

It was bloody nice though; as was this, the meaty tranche of fish just about staying on the right side of perfectly cooked while bobbing in its fragrant bath – which was all at once rich, complex, refreshing and soothing, as good Thai food should be. It was also ten pence under a tenner, which, considering inflation over the last fifteen odd years since the infamous visit to the fish man in rural Buckinghamshire, makes it seem even more of the bargain for central Soho.

As I was flying solo I treated myself to a glass of one of the most expensive wines on the list, a Sonoma chardonnay that looked, and tasted, rather like scrumpy. Kinda weird, but I kinda liked it and perfectly pitched to stand up to the salt and the smoke.

If they had a signature dish (the majority of the menu changes daily, depending on what’s available), it would have to be the ever present claypot glass noodles with Tamworth belly and crab. I’m normally not a great fan of glass noodles, finding them gloopy and tasteless, but the dish here did much to change my mind, in no small part down to the fatty pork and rich brown crab meat that infused the noodles with a glorious piggy, crabby funk, lifted by the verdant green chilli sauce alongside.

There's no dessert menu at Kiln but the ever-reliable Gelupo is just around the corner, so I decamped there for a double scoop of bonet - still a fave, years after my first visit, and tiramisu gelato. As Saint Delia said, one is fun, but I can't help feeling that having the Ewing there to help me finish my second scoop is always better.