Wednesday, 31 January 2018

I got (south coast) Seoul

The Ewing has to endure a lot when we go out to eat. Sure, she gets taken to some fancy restaurants and some trendy bars, but she also gets taken across trading estates in Rotherhithe and down dodgy alleyways in Birmingham. Yes, I know, some people may also consider this a positive. Despite the downsides, she also gets the enlightening pleasure of my company during dinner. Again, some people may also consider this a positive….

So, while 2018 may be the year of finally giving my wife an easy life (just kidding, that would be boring) for our final meal out of 2017 we headed to the inauspicious Bournemouth suburb of Charminster, for Korean food, where I promised to be on my very best behaviour.

To drink it had to be the classic rice lager, Hite, which is sweet and fizzy and pretty devoid of merit as a beer, but makes a great accompaniment to bold and spicy Korean flavours. I wanted the Ewing to chose the cinnamon punch, so I could drink it, but she went with the coconut water, complete with chunks of young flesh that get stuck in the straw.

Things started promisingly with some fried dumplings stuffed with kimchi (of which I could have easily eaten several dozen more) and, even better, dduk bok gi, a dish of fish balls, mixed veg and rice cakes stir-fried in a chilli sauce. 

Mercifully, Korean rice cakes aren’t the cylindrical blocks of dust that people nibble earnestly on before destroying a multipack of Quavers, but are cylindrical and chewy - which may not seem like much of an improvement, but are strangely moreish and a great vehicle for the fermented gochujang chilli paste, of which I can’t get enough.

It also made an appearance in my main, a dish of oh sam bulgogi, marinaded pork and squid, stir fried with spring onion and  served on a sizzling platter with a side of sticky rice. Currently pork and cephalopod is my favourite surf and turf combo (although, ask me tomorrow, and I’d tell you scallops and bacon) here both types of protein were expertly cooked as so to remain sweet and bouncy; the squid, particularly, like perfectly coiled springs of joy.

Possibly the zenith/nadir of the Ewing’s experiences as a lapsed blogger’s wife came when the waitress bough her main course, the salmon bibimpab.

Bibimbap, if you weren’t aware, as my wife wasn’t despite my wordy explanation - I should have clocked she wasn’t listening when I saw the glazed look, but I get that a lot, so it’s hard to tell - is a mix of rice, vegetable and protein (usually strips of beef), topped with a raw egg and a squirt of chilli sauce and served in a furiously hot stone bowl. The contents are then quickly mixed with chop sticks to cook to egg/meat and mix in all the crispy bits at the bottom of the dish.

It was a beautiful vision when first bought to the table; a cornucopia of bright julienned veg and perfect cubes of marinated salmon, crowned with a glowing egg yolk; sadly there’s no evidence of this, as our helpful waitress was very keen to jump in and assist the Ewing. This look of abject fear on my wife's face in the above photo, was upon her realising that I had missed the money shot. By all accounts it was very tasty to eat, but you’re going to just have to imagine what it looked like. Here's a picture of the, slightly less photogenic, miso soup instead.

NB – while my wife looks semi-petrified in the picture above, I can assure you was happy to capture an action shot; after I’d stopped laughing.

We also enjoyed some complimentary banchan - pickled or fermented vegetable dishes served with rice - that included broccoli alongside the more familiar beansprouts and kimchi. A surfeit of deliciousness (or as delicious as cold, slightly vinegary broccoli can be) that meant desert defeated us, even after trying to persuade the Ewing for a full five minutes that she really wanted the black sesame ice cream. With two spoons. Somehow, she resisted my charms. 

That aside, I must still have some appeal, as she’s already agreed to our next round of eating adventures. As Thackeray so astutely said; Despair is perfectly compatible with a good dinner, I promise you.

Monday, 22 January 2018

Lunch on the Water - Leeds

I’m generally a pretty accepting sort of a person but there are a few things I remain distrustful of; when my wife says she's 'nearly ready', the arrival boards in First Wessex bus shelters, and bars/restaurants who offer both pizzas and burgers on their menu.

Despite being two of my very favourite foodstuffs, when you see them united you know one is almost definitely going to suck; maybe (probably) both. While it’s usually the pizza that's the first casualty - such a simple thing, but so hard to get right without the (costly) kit – bad burgers are also grimly familiar.

One place that has successfully managed it is the Belgrave in Leeds, but that’s because they have a pizza concession from Dough Boys at the front and burgers from the Patty Smith’s Burger Co. at the back, meaning you can mix and match from two specialists; which is cheating, really, but great if you fancy a slice with some fries on the side.

The Belgrave also serve a wide selection of Very Nice beer, so it’s pretty hard to be persuaded to try other places for lunch. That's until I saw that the team behind them had a latest venture - Water Lane Boat Lane, down by the docks - that also kept a handsomely stocked bar, and were offering a menu of both pizza and burgers. Perfect for the hungry, thirsty and the undecided.

Even though the brewery is just around the corner, and we had our customary visit scheduled for the following day, I couldn't turn down a half of the Blueberry and Mosaic black IPA, from the Northern Monk Patrons Project.

I'm not always convinced by BIPA - is it a stout or is it a pale ale? - but I really enjoyed the balance of the fruitiness from the berries with the herbal funk of the hops and the bitter edge of the roasted malt. At a hefty 7%, it's a sipper, not a slurper, but, not to give too much away in the first few paragraphs, I liked it (and the food) so much I came back for another half the very next day.

Their pizza dough is made using just three ingredients: organic Yorkshire flour, water and salt. A promising start, but pretty much all you can put in a pizza dough, to be fair. More excitingly, after slow proving for twenty four hours, their pies are cooked in their Small Victories brick oven, handmade in Naples and shipped to these shores. And, best of all, they are buy one get one for a quid on Sundays and Mondays. 

They also offer interesting, but not too outlandish, flavour combos such as prosciutto, buffalo mozzarella and pickled radicchio that I split with the Ewing. This is my kinda pizza; a puffy cornicione; blistered from the heat of the oven; a pleasingly chewy slightly sour base; and just enough toppings to keep things interesting without overwhelming the dish's inherent simplicity (or giving it a soggy bottom).

We also shared the ox cheek with horseradish, san marzano tomatoes and mozarella, which was the Ewing's preferred pie. Combining rich chunks of meat, like the best beef stew, with zippy horseraduish, sweet tomatoes and melty pools of milky cheese, it was another fine example of how simple, yet majestic, a good pizza can be. 

My cousins, who had come to meet us in a break between festive shopping, also enjoyed the classic margarita - the benchmark to which discerning diner Georgia approved; the salami and cured pepperoni; and the kale, pecorino, black olive and truffle oil; which sounded virtuous, but had two types of cheese to make up for it.

As I may have already revealed, we liked it so much that we went back the very next day. Prompted by the prospect of more blueberry beer and the fact that Tuesdays are buy one burger, get one for a pound. Time for the litmus test; could they pull off the double?

As with the day before, we attempted the 'sharing' thing, stating with the Small Victories’ burger - an aged Yorkshire beef patty, cheese, toasted sesame bun, bacon jam, tomato, lettuce, pickles, and Small Victories burger sauce. In a saturated market this was a competent, if unremarkable effort.

Surprisingly, the standout was the veggie option; a beetroot, white bean and fennel patty on a toasted sesame bun, with tomato jam, pickles, burger sauce and salad. While I was worried it sounded rather worthy, it reminded me a bit of the Indian vada pav - a fried spiced potato fritter served in a bun, and one of my favourite Indian snacks. This was possibly even better - gently spiced, earthy, sweet and crisp. To paraphrase the Ewing, a bit of a taste sensation

With the sun reflecting on the Leeds and Liverpool shipping canal outside the window, I reflected on how a decent pizza/burger double - with a great beer and keen service - really is possible. I'm still working on expectations when it comes to how long it's going to take for my wife to finish getting ready. (I'm still working on expectations of when you will be able to find your own things - TE).

Wednesday, 10 January 2018

Time to split shots

I've got mixed emotions when it comes to coffee. It begins with a strong start - there aren't many smells better than freshly brewed cup of joe - but often quickly descends into a bitter middle and a lingering regret on the finish. A metaphor for many things in life, I increasingly find. 

Although I mostly subsist on pints of PG Tips (pretty hard to mess up - although a colleague regularly manages it) I do enjoy some java. I'm a big fan of the Red Eye at Boscanova in Bournemouth - a mug of filter with an extra shot of espresso, although it does lead to a propensity for waffling even more than normal. I also always look forward to the coffee at the Westminster Archives; while it's not particularly notable, it's strong, there's lots of it and it also comes with a decent number of Jammy Dodgers.

Possibly my favourite caffeinated libation of all, and one I now customarily look forward to on our bi-annual visits to Leeds, is the split shot. Googling hasn’t thrown up too much on the history of the drink (the name also used to describe several other beverages, including an espresso with half the caffeine probably better named What's the Point) but my uncultured understanding is that here it’s a double espresso ‘spilt’ into a single and a piccolo – the definition of the latter being either a ‘long’ macchiato or a ‘short’ flat white; do keep up at the back – so the coffee can be tasted both on its own and with milk. (oh, i am totes lost - TE).

It's a drink I first discovered when looking for tips for a beverage to help keep my eyes open on the slog back down the M1 (in the passenger seat? - TE). The lovely folk on Twitter lead me to the Light - literally and figuratively, where I discovered the incongruous La Bottega Milanese, complete with astroturf carpet, exposed pipework, and rickety metal stools. 

Their mantra is "If it’s not from Italy, it’s from Yorkshire", and the beans for their drinks are all roasted locally, and the milk is from local farms. And while I probably know as much about coffee as Trump does about uranium, I enjoyed La Bottega Milanese’s enough to make it a regular part of our last day in the North tradition. The espresso provides a short sharp shock, while the piccolo - I’m not usually a big fan of milk in coffee – treads the right side of the line between sweet and sickly.

The coffee isn’t the only draw, as they also serve a selection of traditional imported Italian deli items, cakes and sweets, including my favourite, pasticcini, a mini cannoli with a crisp blistered outer shell that tastes like it’s made from crunchy sugar brittle, which is filled with Nutella or a sweet pistachio paste. The perfect foil for the bitter coffee. There are also various pasta bakes, pastries and ciabattas for those who value their dentistry, or are in need of a little more sustenance.

Despite being a creature of habit at heart I don't really like change, but I recently fell down a rabbit hole looking at the Noisette Bakery Instagram page, after finding out their cakes are now served at North Star Coffee down at Leeds Dock. I knew then, even after a weekend gorging on fine foods and wine with the family, I needed a Morning Cake in my life.

It was also a good excuse to explore another part of town as, to my shame, after visiting this fine city for the best part of forty years, I had never made this far down the River Aire. I can highly recommend  the schlep though, the area reminding me a bit of Sunday walks in London across Mudchute and the Isle of Dogs, and especially lovely on a crisp and clear winter's morning.

Originally set up as a roastery, working with independent and ethical coffee producers across the globe, they have recently expanded their site to include a cafe and general store. So now you can now watch them roasting grinding and packaging their beans through the glass partition while you sit back and drink the fruits of their labour.

Any beverage with Christmas in the title usually invokes the fear of drinking a liquid scented candle – although I did build-up a bit of a gingerbread latte habit at uni while burning the midnight oil.  Thankfully this isn't fancy flavoured stuff, with added syrups and spices, but a Brazil/Guatemala/Costa Rica blend that’s billed as naturally possessing notes of date, orange, marzipan, red apple. 

In all honesty, to a primitive palate like mine, it tasted like a cup of coffee, albeit a pretty serious one; the espresso, particularly, provided a swift smack round the chops, while the addition of a lick of milk balanced out the piccolo a bit without making it taste like Mellow Bird.

The Morning Cake - vanilla infused sour cream batter layered with tonka bean and topped with a spiced almond streusel - was just as good it sounded.  Possibly better. The ethereally light and fluffy texture meant it slipped down far too easily considering I'd just eaten my first breakfast (limited edition Vegemite, an early Xmas pressie from my sister in Oz, toast courtesy of my cousin).

As well as selling bags of their own coffee, there is also a small selection of local goodies including Leeds Bread Co-Op and Proper Nutty peanut butter from Huddersfield. After persuading the Ewing that we needed a loaf of the former (her sourdough starter is currently in hibernation at the back of the fridge, although I fear it's going to burst to life, like Zuul, at any given moment) it seemed prudent to get a jar of the latter.

We also picked up a bag of their coffee, described as 'washed micro lot' from Guatemala. Your guess is as good as mine, but it makes a decent cup of bean juice to go alongside my crunchy peanut butter on sourdough toast. Enjoyed with absolutely no bitterness or regrets (and maybe an extra jammy dodger on the side).

Saturday, 23 December 2017

A Festive Test

It's the most wonderful time of the year; a time to eat drink, be merry, get heartburn and have an argument. And, with this in mind, I devised a Festive Test Treat that would cunningly tick all of the above. A visit to our, newly opened, local carvery for three courses - all featuring the mighty, and clearly on-trend, yorkshire pudding - all drenched in lashings of faint regret and gravy.

Things started reasonable promisingly, with a decent selection of ale. Being a Marston's pub, the range featured a selection from their stable including Hobgoblin, Ringwood and Pedigree amber ale. I went with the, seldomly seen so far south, Sneck Lifter, from Jennings Brewery based in Cumbria. A traditional dark bitter, perfect for a wintery afternoon.

I had ordered the carvery as my main and was handed a golden ticket to the gravy train, with a promise the staff would alert us when the Ewing's main was nearly ready to leave the kitchen. So we sat back and relaxed with our pints, while fifty per cent of us watched Spurs put five past Stoke on Final Score and fifty per cent of us tried to solve a remote work-related incident involving a malfunctioning automatic door, both over the screams of the children running amok around our table. All pointers to a great day out.

Just as a member of staff appeared to give us the heads up that the rest of the food was on the way, another arrived with the rest of the food. All of it; our 'sharer' starter and the Ewing’s main. After rearranging the space on the table to fit the plates, a confused voice piped up; ‘are there two, or three of you', while we all turned a stared at my Tottenham beanie, occupying the empty seat next to me. 

Not that our confirmation of the former had any bearing anyway, as both staff vanished as quickly as they had appeared, leaving us with a surfeit of batter-based products and some sympathetic/horrified (delete as appropriate) looks from the tables around us at the mountain of food in front of us. Well, I had promised it would be a test, just not of my wife's patience.

I’m still not really sure whether it’s better or worse to assume that our invisible friend wanted to take down a whole camembert, rather than it being an appetite sharpener, but I was thankful the carvery call hadn’t been more timely as it gave me the chance to fully concentrate on the cheese. 

This proved a lucky thing, as congealing camembert in a Yorkshire pudding is as tough to eat as it sounds, although also delicious, especially when paired with the random handful of trail mix that adorned it. I'm not sure the warm and wilted leaves were adding much though, other than a metaphor for an overriding sense of wilted despondency.

The Yorkshire wrap was a behemoth of a pudding, stuffed with a whole roast dinner, before being carefully rolled up in grease proof paper adorned with faintly nauseating faux dictionary definitions of made-up words like 'hyper delicious'. With nothing to compare it to, the Ewing proclaimed it pretty good, if a little unwieldy to eat. As is the issue with many wraps, it also suffered from unfilled ends, but they did provide a bonus jug of gravy for dunking.

As there was already roast potatoes nestled in the wrap, they decide to serve it with a wholly superfluous - but actually very tasty – pile of chips and, even more randomly, ramekins of mushy peas and pickled cabbage. While I love mushy peas, here they provided a distracting sweet gloopiness; the pickled cabbage however, was pretty inspired, bringing some well needed crunch and tang. 

The carvery was everything a carvery should be; a hammy guy serving slices of ham with a smile (I also tried turkey, but skipped the dangerously desiccated beef in case we drew more attention to ourselves when the Ewing has to perform the Heimlich manoeuvre). Add oversized yorkies, overcooked carrots, ladles of gluey gravy (which tasted surprisingly good), squares of rubbery stuffing, decent roasties, and a wan but tasty cauli cheese, and it was all I ever wanted. Seriously. And a veritable bargain at £6.45.

The fun didn't finish there, as I insisted we stayed to sample the delights of the 'zingy raspberry yorkshire pudding sundae'. A potential aberration that tasted far better than it sounded. In fact, I'd go so far to say I really enjoyed it; a nostalgic mix of Mr Whippy van sauce, fresh cream and ice cream, crowned with strips of pud (which actually worked) and garnished with disc of diabetes. Even the Ewing smiled; although that may have been the constant supply of Sneck Lifter I was bribing her with.

Overall the whole experience was just like a microcosm of the festive season - crying babies, over-indulging, too much beer and a roller coaster of emotions, from elation to despair. All over the space of a few hours. Plus bonus yorkshire puddings. Pretty perfect really. Happy Christmas, one and all, see you on the other side; have fun and don't forget the Rennies.

Wednesday, 13 December 2017

Bites - Butcher's Tap

Sometimes I have good ideas, sometimes I have great ones, and sometimes they might be considered somewhat questionable - such as deciding I fancied opening a tin of corned beef after a night drinking whisky (I've still got the scars), or deciding a solitary bottle of factor 8 was sufficient for a week in the Algarve, in July (I'm still peeling); or persuading my other half - with just the merest hint of bribery -  a visit to Tom Kerridge's newly opened pub-cum-butchers for lunch in the run up to Christmas was a good idea.

The Spittal Street site, the third in Kerridge's Thames-side empire, was previously the home O'Donaghues - a quintessential, low-beamed Irish sports bar for lovers of Guinness and rugby, preferably both at the same time, while wearing a plush hat with a shamrock on it.

The new vibe is much more Marlow, darling, with the press release describing it as; "a welcoming hub for the local community where people can meet for a drink, a bite to eat, and buy well-sourced quality meat to take home.” That being said, there's still three TVs showing sports here, although - like at the Coach down the road - they seem a fairly pointless addition, with only the Ewing and the bar staff able to see Chelsea vs Newcastle on the screen behind me, although she seemed to be enjoying it rather more than my company.

But before we could start ignoring each other over the lunchtime kick-off, we had to make our way past the scum of eager Marlovains seemingly overcome, rather like Uncle Monty as a youth, that a butcher's had finally returned to town. Resplendent in their blue striped aprons and straw hats, it's a professional looking set-up with the offerings running from homemade chicken kievs to carefully chined racks of lamb and magnificent aged wing ribs.

I'm taking a point off for not having any faggots, my all-time favourite old school butchers treat - preferably served with chips, mushy peas, and lashings of gravy - but they did have a beatific pig's head in their glass-fronted fridge in the corner, who stared beadily from the corner as I enjoyed his bretheren.

While the beverage of choice appeared to be cold white - being ordered and dispatched at an impressive rate by a large proportion of the clientele - with an afternoon of Getting Things Done ahead, I was happy to stick with a pint. Like his other ventures, Kerridge has partnered with Greene King, who brew his Hand & Flowers ale. Fortunately, they also had Rebellion's Roasted Nuts, one of my favourite seasonal beers and brewed less than a mile down the road.

The sausage roll was, more accurately, cochleate. A snail-shaped slice, edged with flaky pastry, rather than the more familiar porky parcel. Despite its unorthodox shaping, it was pretty decent, although for £3.50 for a moderate chunk, you would hope so. Piccalilli, with its ominously lurid appearance, improves the flavour most things it cosies up with, and here was no exception.

We also ordered a couple of dogs - as they were just preceded by the word 'hot' on the chalkboard stand and there were no menus to be seen, I relied on Google to reliably inform me the over-sized smoked sausage was topped pulled pork, pickled chillies, crispy onions and mustard mayonnaise. Sometimes I marvel at the modern world - why talk to anyone when you can find out from an illuminated four inch square in front of your face. Inelegant to eat but indisputably good, even at £7.50 a pop.

However grim things seem, pork products are a well-known cure-all and our mini haul from the small deli counter was no different. Pork crunch had been 'hot flashed', which sounded like something that might befall the women we had seen queuing with their wicker baskets for their chops and sausages but, more prosaically, seemed to mean the puffier type of scratching, rather than the Mr Porky tooth-smashers.

The pie was also highly commendable, although the pastry seemed a little lighter and chewier than the common-garden hot water crust, with layers of lamination when I cut into it. The filling, however, was the real deal. lots of peppery chunks of juicy pork, with a good jelly ratio (i.e. pretty much none), and perfect eaten on the sofa with a good dollop of mustard and another bottle of Roasted Nuts. So, not such a bad idea of mine after all....