Friday, 29 March 2019

Out out

There are few things better than an unexpected Friday afternoon off, and this particular Friday afternoon I was particularly excited to be going out out for once and hitting the town for a cocktail crawl; kicking off with solo drinks at Dandelyan. 

Located on the ground floor of the Sea Containers hotel on the Southbank, this is possibly my favourite stretch of my favourite city. Even the lowering clouds merged perfectly with the steely waters of the Thames and the marvellous geometry of the buildings; as viewed here from Blackfriars Bridge.

Launched by London’s very own bartender extraordinaire Ryan Chetiyawardana, AKA Mr Lyan, it has recently been awarded the accolade of the best cocktail bar in the whole wide world (clearly they have never had a jug of Woo Woos at Yates’ Wine Lodge).

I was particularly keen to come, even if it was only a flying solo visit, as it was the penultimate day it would operate in this incarnation, before being closed for good, remodelled and reopened as Lyaness. As it was their final week, several old faces had dropped in and I could over hear the staff giving them the low down on the new iteration from my perch at the bar, from what I could pick up, it's 

From their final cocktail menu, The Modern Life of Plants, I kicked off with a Re-Supply Sour, which include Koji liquor, Compass Box whisky, raspberry and nutrient-enriched cardboard. I had to Google koji; apparently it's a fungus, Aspergillus oryzae, that's used to make fermented things such as sake, miso and soy sauce. 

While I'm still not much clearer of what was actually in it, I can tell you that it was delicious. I love the clean, bright flavours of a sour and this made the perfect pre-prandial; fresh and zingy and, as you can see, pretty as a picture.

Obviously I have decided the 'no sugar rule' doesn't extend to alcohol, and I took full advantage of that to order the Koji Hardshake, a stalwart that has stayed on the ever-changing menu since 2014. Another drink featuring koji - yes, the clue is in the name - along with blended scotch, lemon juice, double cream and liquorice bitters. The piece de resistance is a blow-torched marshmallow, spritzed with a truffle spray, that is balanced on the rim.

Perfectly balanced between creamy, spicy and boozy, this was rich and funky but without being cloying. I'm not sure if this will make a comeback in the new gaff, but, if it does, jump on it. Not literally; the gooey marshmallow will get everywhere.

After wedging, literally, myself into a tube carriage at St Paul's - God bless London during Friday night rush hour - I made it to Bethnal Green. Despite my trousers clearly being far too long for East London, I snuck in anyway and hit Mother Kelly's Paradise Row for a swift half while awaiting the Ewing's arrival.

Always a great place for a beer, or several, this visit coincided with the launch of the To Øl Mr. series, their tribute to Quentin Tarantino's cult 90s classic Reservoir Dogs. I tried a half of the Mr Orange; a double dry hopped IPA with khaki fruit (me neither), orange peel and re-fermented with To Øl instant crush brett (still no idea) at 5 per cent. It was good, but maybe not the ten-odd quid - I managed to cut the prices off when I took the photo, but it certainly wasn't cheap - it cost.

The Ewing started her night on the booze with the 9 per cent Mr Brown; an 'imperial salty caramel cookie dough double coffee fudge chocolate milk hazelnut butter vanilla cocoa crumble brown ale'.  Which was an unorthodox aperitif, but tasted quite as marvellous as it sounds.

Sensing it was probably wise to stop for ballast at some point (and you won't like the Ewing when she's hangry), we moved next door, literally, for dinner at Sager and Wilde. A wine bar-cum-restaurant they are also known for their incredible lunch and early evening menu, featuring a plate of pasta and a glass of wine or a negroni for a tenner.

We both chose the cocktail option. Alongside our drinks we enjoyed a generous bowl of excellent nocellara olives, the Ewing's absolute fave, and also some excellent lamb and caper arancini. Crisp-crumbed balls of gooey risotto studded with shredded meat and the poky pickled buds. A labour of love consumed in a couple of delicious mouthfuls.

The Ewing chose the Reginette, or little queens, made with beetroot in the pasta dough, turning it a glorious pink colour.  It was served simply with smoked ricotta and black garlic and topped with a drift of crispy breadcrumbs. While a touch of the stodgy side (which I am highly down with), I enjoyed the fiery note from a liberal dose of chilli.

My Strozapretti, gloriously translating as priest stranglers, was bathed in a rich pork ragu that had chunks of tender meat and tomatoes in a deep, buttery sauce that had been properly covered in a drift of fresh parmesan. The whole lot, including tip, was still cheap enough to be able to pay by contactless. Amazing value, great staff and excellent food.

Not quite at stumbling stage we made it down the Bethnal Green Road to the final call on our cocktail crawl. Another London venue that features in the World's 50 bars, Coupette was awarded the best new opening in 2017, and debuted at an impressive 18th on the full list last year. 

With a menu that focuses on calvados as well as cocktails the Ewing started with the 'apples'. Made simply from french apple brandy and fresh pressed apple juice, the varieties used change monthly giving it a subtly ever-changing flavour profile through the seasons. When I was chatting to the bar tender at Dandelyan earlier that the afternoon, this was the drink he recommended saying it was his favourite cocktail to drink anywhere at the moment. Quite a bold claim, and one that was backed up with it's delicious simplicity.

The cocktail they are best known for is the champagne colada, which, as it sounds blends a pina colada with a healthy glug of Moet et Chandon. Two of my very favourite things: as the Barefoot Contessa might say, 'how bad can that be?'

The answer is not bad at all, with the fizz lifting the richness of the coconut milk. Probably my drink of the day, although getting the coconut flakes through the straw did take a monumental amount of effort as I got towards the end. Who said this drinking lark was easy.

As a nightcap I took the bartenders recommendation of a tropical old fashioned, made from a Woodford Reserve and tropical cordial of pineapple, lime and mango and tropical bitters. Simple, strong and surprisingly refreshing for a digestif.

The Ewing tried the Board Room with cognac, Dubonnet cherry, coffee and smoke. This was a touch too much bonfire for me, but she still loves the odd menthol Vogue, so it slipped down pretty easily.

While we were gearing up for that to be the last round, the level of inebriation the Ewing had reached by that point lead to the  realisation that she was still a couple of drinks behind me. And so she promptly ordered a champagne colada for herself.

Not wanting to be left out (although this didn't help with any imbalance in imbibing), I ordered the champagne martini, which, surprise surprise, saw a classic martini with Grey Goose Noilly Prat being topped up with Moet and champagne liqueur and garnished with a frozen grape. This was another excellent combination, the effervescence smoothing out the rough edges of the vodka perfectly. 

Definitely at stumbling stage, our final stop on the trail was a visit to the estimable Beigel Bake on Brick Lane. While I'm a big fan of their smoked salmon and cream cheese offering (and their cheesecake, if I could actually eat it at the moment), it's hard to see past the perfect salt beef. 

Huge slabs of cured brisket, cut into hunks and stuffed into the perfectly squidgy/chewy bagels, along with pickles and a good slathering of proper english mustard. If you don't end up here after a night on the tiles, have you even been out drinking in East London? Sober me also thanked drunk me for bringing an extra cream cheese bagel back to the hotel for the morning after. Drunk me can still pull it out the bag when it's needed.

Wednesday, 20 March 2019

Curry for breakfast

One thing I do love about being a proper grown up is that you can wake up on a Saturday morning and decide you're going to have a curry for breakfast. Which is probably marginally less fun than eating a curry late on a Friday night and sleeping through Saturday morning, which comprised of most of my early twenties, but makes me feel slightly less resentful about not being able to sleep the clock around any more.

While my favourite Sri Lankan place is just down the road and makes superlative chole bhature (fried bread and chickpea curry), I fancied something a bit different. Somehow I also managed to persuade the Ewing that she also wanted something a bit different That something starting with driving around the M25 while listening to me singing along to my 90s indie playlist and ending up at the veritable New Asian Tandoori Restaurant - aka Roxy's - in Southall for some traditional Punjabi food.

From the list of chaats (small, savoury snacks) we started with pani puri, or, as it's known in the Punjab, golgappa. A dish that's fun to say, and even more fun to eat. 

To do so you take a crisp, hollow puri, carefully make a hole in the top and stuff it with a mixture of chilli, chutney, potato, onion and chickpeas. To finish, top it off with a glug of tamarind water (known as imli pani), and quickly pop the whole thing in your mouth with as much decorum as you can manage. In my case, not much.

While I like to think there are few curry dishes I haven't tried (I've certainly eaten enough curries), in reality I'm a mere pretender when it comes to the cuisine of the Indian sub-continent. In reality this is only a good thing as it means I still get to discover new dishes, even if I'm only twenty miles from home.

Today's new dishes were  sarson ka saag, or mustard greens, traditionally served with makki ki roti, an unleavened grilled corn bread topped with lashings of butter. Mustard greens are traditionally eaten in winter and spring, so we were bang in season to enjoy their rich earthiness. Perfect when scooped up with pieces of the sweet, smoky grilled roti, which resembled a giant Mexican tortilla and was none the worse for it.

Another Punjabi favourite, only available here at the weekends, is dal makhani, or 'buttery lentils'. Made from whole black lentils (urad) and red kidney beans the dish gets its richness from lashings of butter and cream. 

As it's tomato-based, the sauce resembled a spiced version of Heinz tomato soup. Which, everybody knows, is the best soup. I'd try to fool myself by saying the lentils made this healthy, but we all know this contained more glorious dairy than the EU butter mountain.

We tried to order a Punjabi chicken curry but that wasn't ready, so settled for chilli chicken instead. An admirable substantiation, this was excellent -  a sweet, rich, almost sticky sauce full of juicy chunks of chicken. I didn't even mind the odd piece of green pepper, a vegetable that normally conspires to ruin any dish they get near.

To finish we could have gone down the Broadway for chunks of burfi - a dense milky fudge, often studded with nuts - or some gulab jamun - curls of fried batter soaked in a sweet sugar syrup that are freshly fried out on the busy street - but I'm still eschewing the sugar. 

Instead we nibbled on a handful of breath-freshening fennel seed, paid the, very modest, bill and went down the road to see the house where the Ewing's mum grew up. Even with our impromptu tour the advantage of being up and out so early meant we were still back home in good time for lunch.

Thursday, 14 March 2019

Let's put on our classics and have a little dance, shall we...

Stealth has moved (part-time) to Margate. The last time we were both here together was over two decades ago, when I was at uni up the road and Stealth came to visit. We were somehow organised enough to join my house mates on a trip to the sea that involved bleak concrete, gale force winds and a hangover.

This time only the latter was accurate. And although Arlington House still dominates the skyline the shopping centre at the foot of the tower has been razed to the ground and the whole town has a pep in its step, buoyed by the Turner Gallery, the growing art scene and the DFLs (down from Londons) who have streamed to the coast, attracted by the East Kent property prices, bracing sea air and neighbours who want to stop and chat to you (I'm not sure this was a plus point, in Stealth's case).

We enjoyed a lovely few days with Stealth and Regina, the perfect hosts, that included delicious scallops and picpoul de pinet at Hantverk and Found; confit duck nuggets and chocolate orange martinis at the Cinq Ports; and Stealth's (homemade) lamb curry with (not homemade) peshwari naan All washed down with Aldi champagne, Stealth's new favourite tipple. Austerity has finally hit the City.

As I'm predicting a surfeit of Thanet-related posts (I sense another micropub crawl by the sea in my near future) coming up on the blog over the next few months, I'm going to kick things off with (re)visits to a few old school Kentish classics.

First up was the Dalby Cafe, a stalwart that has been on the corner of Dalby Square in Cliftonville since just after the Second World war, still with the original formica tables and seats reclaimed from the old Margate trams that trundled along the seafront.

Coincidentally seen in an article featuring a rather wan Pete Doherty (excitingly now residing in Stealth's very neighbourhood) taking down their super-sized breakfast a few weeks before our visit. While I wasn't sure I could take down a plate that included four sausages, four rashers, bubble and squeak, hash browns, toast and a burger and chips (I'm pretty sure the Ewing could), I was looking forward to something slightly more modest, if no less delicious.

The menu focuses on their all day breakfast, but also offers stalwarts such as braised steak, cottage pie, scampi, corned beef and a good-looking plate of fish and chips, which the chaps on the table next to me were enthusiastically slathering in salad cream and tucking in to at half ten in the morning.

The Ewing, not known for her great memory, managed to get to the counter and accurately reel off the list of things I had requested (plus the same, with an egg, for her) to be told; 'that sounds like a medium'. Six quid. Including toast and a proper mug of strong builder's tea. Cracking value. 

The reward for her excellent recollection was a proper tasty plate of piping hot food featuring quality bacon and snags - while I'm a sucker for a tube of meat paste, this one had herbs in so you could tell it was fancy - plus two big discs of black pud, excellent fried mushrooms and both baked beans and tinned toms for lubrication. Proper butter on the toast also got both thumbs up from my wife.

Monday morning saw us left to our own devices. So, after my enormously patient wife had driven through a bog, reversed all the way up an endless single track road and then back down another 'road' in pursuit of the Ham Sandwich finger post (worth every swear word and sweaty palm) we retreated to Morelli's in Broadstairs for a well needed fillip.

Opened in 1932, the interior of the original Morelli's - there is now a concession in Harrods, stores in Covent Garden and Portabello Road and franchises in the Middle East - has remained resolutely faithful to the past with its art deco interior, complete with ornate ceiling, sugar pink leather banquettes, Lloyd Loom rattan chairs, formica topped tables and a classic soda fountain. (and the ice cream cone shaped brass lamps - TE).

They offer a variety of different sundaes and coupes, but the Ewing kept it simple with a trio of pistachio, hazelnut and coffee gelatos. Despite my sugar moratorium I may have tried a couple of spoonfuls of both the nutty ones, and I was very glad I did. The pistachio in particular was utterly exceptional.

Alongside was a decent dry double macchiato for me and a, slightly odd, DIY bicerin for the Ewing, with separate glasses of cream and chocolate sauce to mix in with her coffee. While paling in comparison to the peerless version at Soho's Bar Torino, she still appreciated the surfeit chocolate coffee beans that accompanied it.

I can remember coming to Margate on the train with an ex, as penniless students for a romantic day by the sea. Obviously it was cold and grey with buffeting winds (as all my memories of Margate were) but, being Brits, we decided fish and chips by the beach was the order of the day.

We chose Peter's Fish Factory as not only was it near the harbour, but was offering a deal on 'saithe' and chips. Neither of us had any idea what this mystery fish was (prosaically, it later turned out to be pollock), but it was cheap and sounded exotic and tasted extra good with the smell of sea air in our nostrils, despite the added sand in every other bite. 

This time Peter's had a deal offering the more familiar haddock and chips for £4.50, and the Ewing was dispatched to fetch them while I dashed across the road to take some pictures of Dreamland and the mighty Arlington House in the afternoon sunshine.

I've eaten some very average fish and chips recently, but these were absolutely top-tier. Skin on (we are in the south) haddock with a thin carapace of peerless batter with a scoop of properly cooked chips - nicely golden with a fluffy inner. All seasoned with lashings of salt and vinegar and accompanied by the biggest pickled wally I'd seen since I looked in the mirror that morning. Oh, and a Diet Coke to wash it down. Got to think of the diet.

This was the view while eating lunch - the blue plaque you can see in the corner commemorates TS Eliot 'who wrote part of the poem the Wasteland whilst sitting in the Nayland Rock Shelter'. Although why the plaque wasn't affixed to the shelter where we sat, instead of being attached to the public loo next door, remains a mystery. 

I'll leave you with two photos of Stealth and I, taken on Margate beach 20 years apart. How they let us out like that, I'm not sure (escapees - TE). Although things haven't improved all that much. On Margate sands. I can connect. Nothing with nothing, as Thomas Stearns said himself.