Thursday, 28 February 2019

Douze huîtres

When we originally picked Leap Day as the day to finally tie the knot not having to celebrate annually seemed one of the selling points. Until I realised my wife actually wanted to celebrate on the last day of February and the first day of March. Roll on a few years and the lack of a definite day means the celebrations seem to now extend over a space of weeks.

Which is how we found ourselves at Bar Boulud, for a fancy lunch before seeing Massive Attack performing Mezzanine. Between realising one of my favourite albums is over twenty years old and I’ve been married for seven years (or one and three quarters, if you want to be pedantic about it) I felt sufficiently decrepit and was fully in need of a strong drink.

I fancied a dirty martini, which seems to have become a bit of an anniversary tradition, and while there is huge range of gins behind the bar, for reasons I couldn't fathom only a handful are actually listed on the drinks menu. Which seemed even stranger when the wine list resembled a volume of the Encyclopedia Britannica.

Of the suggestions made by our waiter the Cambridge gin stood out as one we hadn't tried (or didn't have hoarded in the cupboard under the stairs at home) although it wasn't until he bought our drinks that he told us the back story of this being the first truffle infused - with the prized white variety from Alba - gin on the market. So caveat emptor if you don't like your drinks with an earthy and funky edge. I thought it was delicious, although I was still tasting fungi for hours afterwards.

Despite not really ever managing to find raw oysters anything more than 'meh', I was keen we had a dozen to share anyway. The Ewing, who knows exactly what I'm like (I normally eat one and then declare I am done) suggested six, but I was hell-bent on a dozen and had spent the morning saying douze huîtres in a more and more flamboyant French accent, until she gave in just to get me to stop.

You can see I looked pretty pleased when the huîtres arrived. Probably as I hadn't eaten one yet although I was steeling myself with the fact that the glutamate levels of oysters (providing the umami hit) are apparently highest in February and March, imbibing them with even more natural MSG. These looked lean and lithe and briny, although I think I'd have found anything sexy after drinking enough of the heady truffled gin.

While raw oysters aren't my fave I love vinegar with an unholy passion, so a spoonful of mignonotte sauce helped two of my four happily down. Followed by one with lemon and one au naturel, which confirmed that snot that tastes like you've been sea swimming is still not really my thing. 

That left the Ewing with huit huîtres, which sounds like the perfect number when said in an annoying cod french accent. Well, it kept me amused. She enjoyed hers greatly, slurping and chewing happily between crusty hunks of bread and butter.

The burger was really what we were there for and I chose the flagship BB Burger - beef patty, foie gras and short ribs stuffed into a black onion seed bun with confit tomato, salad and horseradish mayo. The best way I can think to describe it is high-end basic. Quality ingredients compiled to taste like an excellent, messy ole burger, that drips down your wrists as you grapple with it – full points for bun integrity, that lasted until the last bite - and makes best advantage of the freshly laundered napkins. 

The smoky patty was nicely pink (medium rare is the furthest they will go), the slick foie gras, although subtle, added further layers of richness and shredded short rib added some toothsome oomph. The confit tomato was a necessary addition to cut a swath through the richness, but sadly the expected sinus prickle of horseradish was too faint to play a supporting role.

Is it ever worth paying twenty four quid for a burger and chips? Debatable when I could have bought 16 of my beloved  McDonalds double cheeseburgers with extra pickles, or three (and a mouthful) of Bleecker's bacon cheeseburgers or two and a half Dead Hippies. Although those prices are without fries and don’t come with a wine list that includes a Baron Thenard Montrachet 2008 at 125 pounds a glass to help it down. 

The Ewing wasn’t up for going halves, so I can only piece together what her Piggie (17 quid) burger - topped with pulled pork and housed in a cheddar bun - was like from her comments, which included ‘spicy’ (from the jalapeño mayo) and ‘beefy’. Probably good that she proof reads this blog, rather than writing it. Although she’s far less verbose than me (and more sarcastic - TE), so maybe a rare treat for the reader…. 

She did have lots of positive words for the chips, mainly they were comparable with Maccy d’s, her benchmark for a good fry. They also give you a ramekin of proper ketchup, not some sort of posh artisan chutney that always tastes of sweet sadness.

As everybody now knows I’m an anti-sugar evangelist (bore - TE) and love to tell everyone at every opportunity I’ve quit the piles of the white stuff (obviously I’m joking, there is literally nothing less interesting than people telling you what they eat/don’t eat). While my resolve remains pretty much intact (honey roasted cashews definitely don’t count) I had already decided the lure of the soufflé du jour was probably going to be too much to resist.

My intention was to share with the Ewing, but as it happened she couldn’t resist the lure of the Pom-Passion - with hazelnut dacquoise, roasted apple sorbet, passion fruit jelly and vanilla mousse - so we ordered both. The apple desert was fine, if a little sweet (not unsurprisingly) for me. I gamefully managed a couple of half-forkfuls, just to be sure, although I did like the mouth-puckering intensity of the passionfruit jelly.

Despite asking what the soufflé was on two occasions neither of us had any idea what the waiter actually said in reply. Being English, we ordered it anyway and were rewarded with the an ethereal confection that tasted just as majestic as it looked. The soufflé was definitely orange-based, possibly Grand Marnier (from Googling it, that’s what Jay ate here when they first opened) although it didn’t taste especially boozy. Although nothing would after that martini. The ice cream was defiantly chocolate, and went nicely with the orange, if you like that sort of thing, which I very much do, although I still let my wife polish most of it off.

It's been said that marriage is like a souffle; beautiful, satisfying and fragile. Although, quite honestly, I'd go with too much sometimes make you feel sick and leaves you deflated (harsh - TE). Not sure that would shift as many Hallmark cards though. Still, there's no one else I want to take long afternoon naps with when half-cut on a Friday afternoon (me neither - TE). Which is exactly what we did after finishing this. Here's to many more years of sleeping and eating with my very favourite person. (Hear, Hear! Chin, chin - TE)

Wednesday, 20 February 2019

Squiffy in Summertown

I never really found this time of year particularly endearing when I was growing up. It’s still cold, still muddy, still not light enough to play outside after dinner. The lengthening days means the snow doesn't settle, yet still it falls (normally while I was doing cross country in running shorts and an aertex t shirt). Most of my memories are waiting with a child-like impatience for something good to actually happen. 

Now I’ve slowed down a little, although no less impatient, I can appreciate the subtle changes that herald a new year rolling around. The wonderful pale light that bathes everything in a Northern Renaissance glow as the sun climbs a little higher in the sky each day. Then the first of the snowdrops peeking through, followed by crocuses followed by daffs followed by bluebells followed by blossom.

In another nod to the rituals of growing older, we seem to have started taking an annual late winter pilgrimage to Oxford, which always seems a touch too early to see my favourite blossom – the pink blooms on the almond tree outside the church of St Mary the Virgin on the High Street - in its full splendour. This year, however, we made up for it by taking a lovely walk along the canal path in the low sun for Sunday lunch at Pompette in Summerstown.

Currently the critics' darling, the space at Pompette is split into half restaurant, half wine bar the former offering a tight menu of French classics, the latter a separate selection of snacks and charcuterie. As I fancied a relaxed afternoon of getting sloshed (the name is the French for tipsy) and eating a variety of cured meats and fried things, we chose the latter option, a good call as we ended up with all the warmth and atmosphere without the slight starchiness of the other side of the room.

We started with glorious bread and glorious salted butter and more glorious salt to sprinkle on the salted butter and all accompanied by a cold bottle of Austrian pet nat, as that’s what all the cool kids drink. I thought it tasted like funky cider, The Ewing thought it tasted of ‘funky grapes’, both of us enjoyed it a great deal as we are obviously still cool, if slipping further and further away from our youth.

The cervelles de canut -  a fromages blanc flavoured with herbs, shallots, cider vinegar & walnut oil – has got to be the best thing (fifty pence under) a fiver can get you in North Oxford, or North just about anywhere. A Lyonnaise favourite, the name translates as "silk worker's brain", after the canuts, or weavers, who worked in the city; thankfully the dish itself is far less gruesome than it’s moniker might suggest.

The aforementioned glorious bread here has been turned into crisp, golden toasts for dunking, with the only disadvantage being the airy holes give the cheese more escape routes as you move mouthwards.

Anchovy, shallot & butter toasts were yet another incarnation for the humble loaf, and possibly the best of all; lightly toasted and topped with a slab of butter you could leave teeth marks in (the correct depth, according to my wife) and topped with plump salty anchovies and small rounds of sweet shallot. An unassailable combination one I’m already excitedly thinking of replicating in the garden with a cold bottle of rose come the first sniff of summer.

Croquettes were crisp breadcrumbed nuggets of wobbly fried bechamel, studded with chunks of superlative ham. Available per piece, I could easily have taken down a dozen. In the back ground you can see a superlative celeriac remoulade; an unassuming looking dish of the finely shredded root veg in a creamy dressing that packed a huge mustardy and caper-flecked punch.

Terrine maison — classic pork, chicken and veal terrine with pistachios, was a stunner looks wise but could have possibly benefited from a little more time warming up before I launched in. That impatient streak again.

Alongside the terrine came a large terracotta jar with a pair of wooden tongs and the announcement; ‘cornichons, for you’. Possibly the three most romantic words in the English language. Certainly the three most dangerous, as an unlimited supply of pickled cucumbers to accompany the cured pork products saw me eating well into double figures, as attested by the Zantac later that evening.

Cornichons also came adorning the plate of duck rillettes. Originally the Ewing wanted to eschew either these or the terrine, but I pressed for both and was rewarded with what I named ‘rillettes face’; the look of joy when she had scooped up some shredded meat and a little pickle onto a crust of bread and popped it in her mouth. The fact it was initially neglected, due to a surfeit of other goodies, allowing it to warm up a little also helped boost unctuousness.

'Green salad' was tacked onto the end of the order to try and make myself feel better about eating my greens. I'm not sure the wonderful creamy dressing had any tangible health benefits, but it tasted bloody good. 

You would think after such vasts amounts of food even my wife would be satisfied but, after finishing the second basket of bread she forlornly proclaimed 'is that all' in a mournful Pooh--like voice, before confessing she briefly thought the succulent decorating the table was another dish we had ordered. She was only thwarted when she inspected it a little closer and realised it was still potted in soil.

Luckily, and this was a pre-requisite on eating in the bar, puddings could be ordered on both sides of the divide, and the Ewing was most excited by the kirsch choux bun with Griottine cherries and hot chocolate sauce  and, despite my sugar ban, I was excited for her. While the first attempt arrived sans crème pat the second bun was plump with custard and gave her another chance to anoint it with the jug of hot chocolate sauce it came served with; immensely satisfying, even just to watch.

Obviously I was still being superciliously smug about not eating sugar, before promptly ordering a glass of Sauternes that was pretty much liquid honey, and quaffing a good bit of the Ewing's port - Graham's Six Grapes - for good measure.

A wonderful lunch with wonderful company; and another reason to love this time of year is the light flooding through the window that made my wife postprandially glow in the most lovely way - ably aided and abetted by all the desert wine.

Wednesday, 6 February 2019

Small beer, Worthing

The first month of the year; traditionally a dreary slog of dark mornings and diets and dry January. And while it does sometimes feel like winter may never end, I’ve found myself enjoying the simple pleasures it also brings; racing to get home while it’s still light, flaming sunrises, snow days, the first daffodil. And, for the first time in a long time, feeling more like me. And that’s (mostly) a glorious thing.

To punctuate the overwhelming greyness and to herald what I hope is going to be a cracking year, I also decided to book a weekend away in Worthing. No real reason, just a random urge to get away, see the sea, walk on the pier and spend some time with the lovely Ewing,  who normally feels far less enthusiastic about my plans but seemed (moderately) excited about this one. 

And if the idea of spending all that time with me wasn’t quite enough of a selling point, finding Worthing had seven micropubs and we were going to visit all of them after eating fish and chips on the beach was surely the clincher.

Although I’m still not absolutely clear what constitutes a ‘micropub’ and I’m not sure our crawl made it that much clearer, according to the Micropub Association ‘is a small freehouse which listens to its customers, mainly serves cask ales, promotes conversation, shuns all forms of electronic entertainment and dabbles in traditional pub snacks.’ What’s not to like?

Well, lack of ‘electronic entertainment’ might be a problem if you’re my wife and it’s the FA Cup 5th round weekend. A problem she negotiated by listening to the radio through one ear phone for most the afternoon. I did wonder why she seemed to be staring at me with particular interest at our first stop, the Georgi Fin in West Worthing, until I realised she was actually listening to Accrington Stanley Vs Derby County.

Thankfully I had my first drink of the day to keep me entertained which, after setting myself a challenge to only drink Sussex brews, was a pint of High Weald’s Chronicle (East Grinstead) at an eminently sensible 3.8%. Possibly verging towards triple B (boring brown bitter) in these Citra obsessed times, it was nevertheless a refreshing drop, bringing to mind something George Orwell might have supped while sitting by a coal fire and eating a plate of boiled turnips. Something we all might have to look forward to at the end of March….

The Ewing went a little further afield with her choice of the Pig and Porter (just over the border in Tunbridge Wells) rowanberry saison. I think she enjoyed it, contrary to appearances. In fact the GF was a good start all round – a friendly place with a good range of six gravity dispensed cask beers and three on keg, plus local ciders, wines and spirits.

We initially walked past the Green Man Ale and Cider House on the way to the next stop, only to find the door shut. When The Ewing saw the guy inside holding four fingers up, she confidently told me they would be open in four minutes. Fortunately I wasn't that pissed and realised he probably meant four o'clock, something a quick Google search confirmed. As we were an hour early it was back to the Green Man for a scoop first.

Landlord Les was very helpful when we asked which beers were local, with Goldmark down the road in Arundel being the choice for both of us - the Black Lion Porter for the Ewing and a pint (the idea of pacing myself falling quickly by the wayside) of American Hop Idol for me.

Both beers turned out to be crackers in fine condition; mine was fruity and hoppy while still sessionable, the Ewing rated it 'surprisingly good'. While her porter was  deceptively light in colour but with a rich roasty flavour.  Snacks weren’t strictly local, with scratchings from the Black Country and ham flavoured crisps from Chesham, back round our way, but they were very tasty.

I found the Green Man to be a wonderful curiosity (despite not being the only place like this we would visit over the weekend), with a welcoming landlord, friendly patrons and a real feeling of, slightly eccentric, traditional English bonhomie. Sitting there, drinking a perfectly kept pint and eating my bag of crispy pig skin on a grey Saturday afternoon, my wife beside me excitedly reading the vidiprinter scores, was one of those small moments of intense happiness.

After whiling away a happy hour, the Grizzly Bear, now stop three, was finally ready for us. This was a much hipper vibe to our previous stops with hops hanging from the ceiling, LED lights strung around the bar, and a bookcase that swings around to reveal a secret passage (rather prosaically it just leads to the loos). They were also playing a welcome soundtrack of jazz and blues, which matched the drizzly winter weather perfectly, although I'm not sure what the Micropub Association would have made of it all

The focus was on keg beer (not sure they had any cask on our visit?), wine and cocktails from a succinct list. I saw Beavertown, as well as a couple of ciders and a well known Irish stout, but nothing from closer to home. Secretly I was quite pleased as I had also clocked a mean-looking pornstar martini while looking on Instagram.

Yes, I'm fully aware that passionfruit isn't native to the south coast but I decided cocktails didn't count, which was just as well as this was a pearler. It might be a blast from the past but made like this, complete with a flute of prosecco chaser, it deserves to be revived.

The Ewing also enjoyed their take on an old fashioned, which was served a little longer than usual, and also appeared a different colour, but still came with the traditional orange and cherry garnish. I didn't read the menu, and I can't seem to find hide or hair of it on the interweb, so I can't tell you much more than that it didn't last long.

Founded in an ex hairdressing salon in 2014, the Brooksteed Ale House was named CAMRA’s Sussex pub of the year in 2016 and, judging from the crowds spilling out early on a Saturday night, it looks like it is still a firm favourite.

The time it took to squeeze our way in and get to the bar was also the perfect amount for me to Google some of the unfamiliar beers on the board and ascertain which ones were local. In the end the Ewing and I both went halves of Holler, formally of Uckfield but now brewing in Brighton. Um Bunko juicy pale on keg for me and Loot NEIPA on cask for the Ewing.

Both these were much more of the ‘craft’ ilk than previous beers we had tried, with plenty of juicy hops, as the names suggest. On balance I probably preferred my keg  offering, as the sticky, dank fruitiness seems to work better at a slightly lower temperature and with a bit of spritz.

That said I still think one of my very favourite beers was Beavertown/Naparbier’s DIPA colab, Bone King, which I had on cask at the Craft Beer Co. in Clerkenwell in 2014, and still dream about now. As you can see from the pictures, the Ewing was still utterly thrilled to be only half way round our trek…

The next two stops (originally missed out, but unearthed thanks to further Googling, much to my wife’s continued delight) were to the east of town, which meant crossing the railway line (again) and negotiating an inside-out umbrella and a flooded underpass and retrieving a missing glove.

Mission accomplished we arrived at Beer No Evil on the Brighton Road thirsty for round five. Or, more accurately, wet and bedraggled and pretty pissed, but at least not pissed off with each other (at that point, anyway...).

Pitched somewhere between micro pub and bottle shop this was possibly the best range of beers we saw to takeaway (and drink in) including the beer du jour on Instagram the weekend we visited, Verdant’s Putty. There was also a full range of Unbarred cans (brewed in Hove), and a good selection of Burning Sky and Kernal in 750 ml bottles.

I had a schooner of the new English IPA, brewed by Abyss in Lewes, which is their take on a NEIPA, but brewed with all English hops and malt. I wish I was in a position by that time to tell you something illuminating about how it tasted, but I wasn't. Certainly looks good from the pics, though.

The Ewing went for the only lager (kolsch) of our trip, a schooner of Entroido, an unusual pink version also brewed by Abyss and made with Sussex grapes and malt and Spanish hops. Again, who honestly knows if she enjoyed it by this point, but her expression suggests it was going down ok.

Onwards, to our next stop, the Old Bike Store, also on the Brighton Road. The eagle-eyed amongst you may notice the picture was taken in the daylight. No, we didn’t pull an all-nighter but when we arrived there were a gaggle of smokers by the doorway sheltering from the rain, so I decided to take a pic on the way out. And then promptly forgot.

Previously an actual bike shop, the long, skinny space seemed a bit sterile at first but overall I  really enjoyed the whole OBS experience. Especially the pristine tiled bar area and the friendly, knowledgeable staff who were happy to make local recs. 

I'm not even sure what the Ewing even drank, judging from the picture I'm going to say Arbor's The Devil Made Me Brew It, but whatever it was I know she enjoyed it more than her face suggests. I would also like to thank her for patiently drying my jacket on the portable heater without managing to scald herself or my clothing. An impressive feat at this point.

I had a half of the Scaramanga from Gun Brewery in Heathfield; partly because it was local but mostly because of the name. at 3.9 ABV, it was only one per cent stronger than my first beer of the day but proved a very different beast to end on. It was gluten free too, if you're into that kind of thing. I'm not, as I went for a Pizza on the way back to the hotel (the extra hot offering from Pizzaface. Recommended at the time, not so much the morning after...)

The following day heralded the final stop on the tour, Anchored in Worthing, the doyenne of micropubs in the town and also its first, opened in August 2013 . Described by landlord Nigel Watson as a ‘one room pub with no music, no gaming, machine or pool tables, no food not even a bar', walking in on a busy Sunday afternoon to a scene of happy people, excitable dogs and good conversion, it’s everything you hope a micropub would be.

All the three cask ales on the board were local and luckily they also offered flights, so I didn't have to make any difficult decisions. In fact everything they offer here is Sussex-centric, from the ales, ciders and perries to local wines of all hues from Bolney Estate and Nutbourne with their Nutty brut at a very reasonable 30 quid a bottle.

As promised there was a fine looking cheeseboard, along with crackers and pate and chutney and pickles. Sadly, after our lunch we had both eaten at the nearby Crabshack, neither of us could manage a slither, despite much good-natured encouragement persuading us to get stuck in.

Alongside the third Goldmark beer of the weekend,  the Moshpit IPA, I tried the Blonde Bird golden pale ale from Greyhound in West Chiltington and the Parody session IPA from Firebird from Rudgwick, Horsham. 

My hangover plus the glass of wine I had already imbibed put the breaks on me ordering another, but the lady we got chatting to had the right idea; order a flight then order a pint of your favourite as a chaser. In this case we both agreed on Goldmark, my standout brewery of the trip. The Ewing stuck with soft drinks, but didn't feel short-changed with her Folkingtons hot ginger beer.

While my wife would probably describe me as far too anti-social for micropubbing I thoroughly enjoyed our experience, Despite the fact I actually had to talk to people, including my wife… Only joking darling, I loved the sea air, Sussex ales and even the socialising.