Thursday, 19 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

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.

Wednesday, 28 March 2018

Shepherdess Cafe

As Donne famously said, 'no man is an island', something that can be extended to most things in this tangled web of a word we're passing through, but when you look at the Shepherdess Cafe, just of the Old Street Roundabout, it's hard not to think of it adrift both architecturally and culturally. A piece of living history, that endures as everything changes around it.

Of course, old isn't always good. There's no point clinging onto the past if it's no longer fit for purpose. I mean, I sometimes get nostalgic about those little pots of pre-grated Parmesan, that smelt like sick yet seemed such a revelation in the late 80's, but I don't want to sprinkle them on my pasta anymore.

Thankfully the Shepherdess is reassuringly nostalgic, while still having a place in the modern world. There's a big all day breakfast menu - the builder's being the most popular, on our first visit we were the only ones not wearing hi-vis for most of it - but also porridge and poached eggs and even a 'Nick the Greek brekkie', with grilled halloumi, olives and chopped salad.

Lunchtime sees comforting classics like pies with peas, liver and bacon, scampi, chops, salads (the tinned sardine option is pleasingly retro, if pretty unappetising) and jacket spuds. And a huge choice of sandwich fillings can be ordered on breads ranging from baps to bagels, brown sliced to baguettes. 

Just. Look. At. That. Thick cut bacon, grilled tomato, perfect cheap sausage with it's burnished coat reassuringly paste-like middle; excellent mushrooms (mushrooms seem very tricky to get right) and a chip breakwater stopping the baked beans from escaping (imperative - TE).

While bubble and squeak is my favourite potato application to accompany breakfast, I'm really quite into any kind of fried potato tin the morning, even the controversial chip. Not least because I know it upsets the magical Stealth, and so I always ensure I send her a photo. It's actually almost impossible to avoid a chip here as most plates feature a couple, even if they are not requested, as a kind of garnish.

I asked for a couple of slices of bread alongside, so I could make a cheeky chip butty.  Soft white sliced and hot salty chips melting into the the butter, another clear advantage of having fried spuds on the plate.

I'm not sure that a bagel with three poached eggs, no skimping here, hollandaise and smoked salmon (plus half a dozen chips) is the best option on a raging hangover; but what do I know? (yeah, yeah, no one likes a smugkins - TE).

Quite a lot, as it happens, as I watched the Ewing valiantly attempt her breakfast after the shenanigans of the previous night - involving much red wine at The Z in Shoreditch and ending up with her carrying a cup of hot chocolate across the hotel room and into bed in a manoeuvre that would have made Mrs Overall proud. She wasn't enamoured with the packet sauce, but I think too much sauce the evening before had as much to do with that... 

In my old age I think I'm becoming a less is more kinda girl (although I'm still not into vanilla ice cream or ready salted crisps), and on my most recent visit I went with a classic cabbie combo, but with #noegg and extra mushrooms. Plenty of salt and vinegar on the  steaming hot chips and two rounds of toast, for a toasted bacon sarnie, on the side. As close to an early morning state of transcendence as I'm ever going to get.

When the waitress asked Ewing 'chips or salad?' there was a half second pause, to which she quickly interjected before my wife could reply; 'chips!' Of course it had to be chips, especially when they are freshly cooked, crisp and fluffy like these.

To go with her chips she ordered a cheese and mushroom omelette, a childhood favourite her mum used to make for her. Despite my enduring egg hatred I've kind of got a feeling I'd quite like an omelette if I could get over my distrust. I valiantly tried a mouthful of this, and while it was about fifty per cent cheese, it was really rather good.

While a crazy array of Inception-esque buildings continue to shoot up around it, and you can eat your way around the globe in the restaurants nearby - from Mexican to Scandinavian, to ramen - the Shepherdess remains as a wonderfully isolated, but never alone, example of old school London.

Wednesday, 21 March 2018

Oldroyd - ageing well

Never let it be said that I’m not at the cutting-edge of the London food scene, but in the the week we finally managed to make it to Oldroyd for lunch – for once the Ewing’s choice, made after seeing endless pictures of their seasonal food on social media, nearly three years after they first opened, it was announced eponymous chef and owner, Tom, was to open a new French-inspired pub and dining room in Hackney.

While I was tempted to congratulate him in person, after spotting him sitting by the window as we were lead up to the bijou dining area on the first floor, he seemed engrossed in his laptop while singing along to the Isley Brothers, so I stuck with a bit of synchro humming along to Summer Breeze in solidarity.

Lunch sees a keenly priced set menu which features a short list of lovely-sounding seasonal things, all of which I wanted to eat. Of course, we had to start with a drink and what better than to herald a touch of mild weather after a battering from the Beast from the East, than a bottle of minerally, melon-scented Muscadet.

To start I chose calcots; the semi mythical vegetable from Catalonia that are often 'described as large spring onions or small leeks'. They are traditionally served barbecued or grilled, as they were here, with a romesco sauce made of roasted peppers and ground almonds.

While excited to try them, I was also a little dubious they could live up to their reputation. After all, what's all that exciting about a large spring onion or a small leek. It turns out quite a bit, especially when you've got a charred bit of outer leaf mixed up with a sweet bit from the centre, and topped it all with the smoky, nutty romesco, which was lick the plate good.

The Ewing's plate was an equally beautiful combo of salt code brandade, monk's beard and soft boiled egg. Of the two of the three elements I tried (#nobadegg) the salt cod puree was fluffy and light, yet rich and savoury. Monksbeard, or agretti, was another first. Dubbed an Italian samphire - it hails from Tuscany, where it was grown by monks, from which its name came - it was grassy and slightly salty and helped complete a perfect dish for an early spring day. 

The special of the day (which can also be part of the set menu) was the rare breed pork tonnato; thin slices of cold meat (traditionally veal, but pork is common) in a creamy tuna mayo, anointed with capers, anchovies and oregano leaves. A dish that's seldom seen, it's one my very favourite things to eat and a must order when I do see it. Here it was perfectly assembled, leaving me - apart from the odd murmur of sheer joy - momentarily struck down in silent awe (a joyous moment for all those who experience it - TE). The perfect surf and turf.

To go alongside, and dredge through the leftover pools of glossy tuna mayo, a salad of beautiful butter-yellow castelfranco leaves, with their distinctive pink speckles, came dressed with a sweet and sour hazelnut dressing that took the edge off their gentle bitterness.

Hake, pink fir potatoes and watercress was another Insta dream. A tranche of boneless rolled fish was just cooked, so it flaked apart with little more than a nudge with the tine of the Ewing's fork; the waxy potatoes below bathed in a pool of verdant sauce.

The only duff note came with the Ewing's pudding choice; a scoop of rhubarb sorbet. Despite her grumbles that ice cream or sorbet wasn't a real pudding, she chose it anyway, then grumbled... To be fair it missed the excitement of the previous courses, being too sweet and missing the proper grimace that should accompany a good rhubarb pud. Still looked pretty in pink, though.

My apple and cinnamon tart with vanilla ice cream was my kind of pud, even though I had to share half with the Ewing and I could have probably eaten twice as much of it again. But then I am greedy. While usually an autumnal combo, there are few better things than apple and cinnamon at any time of the year.

While I might be off the pace, I've still got impeccable taste, and thankfully Oldroyd managed to exceed those exacting standards. Hopefully it won't take as long to get over to Hackney.

Wednesday, 14 March 2018

OPM for the masses


Despite recent and relentless ubiquity, burgers have unfaltering kept a place in my heart, and around my waistline. I still like photographing them, I still like looking at them and I still like eating them. Especially the latter. 

They say pictures speak louder than words, I’m gonna keep this post (pretty) short; While I’m not known for my brevity, in this case even my blurry photos (a miracle any are actually in focus considering the gravy and burger sauce all over my hands) tell the story of how happiness can be sandwiched between two buns.

Nestled in a railway arch in Digbeth - they originally started life at the acclaimed Digbeth Dining Club – it’s got a kind of funky Bermondsey Spa Terminus vibe going on. Although, thankfully, here they seem to have also invested in some heating, so I didn’t have to sit there in my many layers as I did on many Saturday mornings at Kernel, back in the heady days when you could still sit and drink beer there.

The beer here is also good, with the draft stuff being provided by Siren; from leafy Finchampstead, near Reading. I had a schooner of the ever reliable Soundwave IPA, while the Ewing got stuck in with Forest for the Trees, their limited edition 8.6 percent winter DIPA. A steady start to the day, even it was mostly wasted on her, as she thought they had been swapped around she was drinking mine anyway. 

 As I’ve pontificated before, my ideal burger falls into two camps. My favourite is the simple and straightforward – based on the iconic McDonald’s cheeseburger; meat, cheese (plastic) onion, ketchup, mustard, pickles. Occasionally bacon; always streaky. Sometimes, however, it’s nice to mix it up a bit and go with salad; nothing too fancy, just shredded lettuce, tomato and mayo. A la the BK Whopper.

I’m usually pretty adamant about keeping the two burger camps separate, but the Cheesy E at OPM mixed gooey cheese with pickles, onion, lettuce and Boss Man sauce, a burger sauce based on the heavenly collision between ketchup and mayo. And it sounded pretty good. (and looked pretty FILTHY  too - TE).

It tasted even better; a mix of tangy sauce, crunchy iceberg, gooey cheese and juicy beef (doubled up, obvs) it just held it’s structural integrity long enough for me to hoover it up, although it was a very close-run thing. The best burger I have had in a long time.  

I had planned to have the naked chips, or maybe just the slaw, or maybe just share the Ewing’s chips…(but I don't like sharing, remember - TE) but when I saw the poutine special, I knew what I had to do. A traditional dish from Quebec consisting of fries, fresh cheese curds and sauce brune - essentially chips cheese and brown gravy – here the gravy is made from beer and onions and the whole dish is topped with pickled chillies. 

While I'm a Southerner at heart - I do love a saveloy and normally prefer my chips with ketchup – fried potatoes and gravy are the perfect bedfellows, especially with a bit of spice.

The Ewing, in an uncharacteristic deviation, chose the chicken burger. Mostly tempted by the fact they use battered thigh instead of breast, and that it was served with Alabama white barbecue sauce (you can also add Frank’s hot sauce to the mix). Again, this was a peerless example, with a special shout out going to the locally baked brioche buns (also used for the beef) with their perfectly blistered tops.

She also chose the, instant hit on Instagram, ODM fries topped with Cajun spice and slaw. Another fail-safe combo of hot and cool; the crunchy cabbage and fluffy spud peppered with the punch of coriander and lime, sriracha mayo, crispy fried onions and fresh spring onion.

Initially claiming not to be in the market for dessert, instead asking for the bill, it didn’t take long to retract our request and ask for some homemade sticky toffee pudding to share. A good call as this was a light and fluffy sponge with a good (if not liberal enough) helping of toffee sauce. While I think it may be the ultimate application for clotted cream (don’t at me) the vanilla ice cream served alongside was also pretty good.

While I’ve pretty much failed to show the brevity promised above, I’ll keep the wrap-up short. In conclusion: go here; have a burger and a beer; share some OPM fries (or, if you’re greedy like me, get your own); thank me later.