Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Chick'n'sours - Reclux

There’s not many places I’m excited enough to write about twice – the ever wonderful Hawksmoor and Maltby Street Market/Bermondsey Beer Mile being notable exceptions – but when Carl Clarke announced that a second branch of his Kingsland Road fried chicken shop, Chick'n'Sours, was coming to Covent Garden and they would be bringing their famous whole Fry Sundays, I knew what I had to do.

As I pontificated at length after my first visit to the original branch, their Original Fry – served sprinkled with seaweed ‘crack’, as if it wasn’t moreish enough – is still amongst the best fried chicken I have eaten; and I know my crispy poultry. Not to mention the sticky Szechuan aubergine, so good we ordered it twice, and their Thai-inspired pickled watermelon salad that I’ve never been able to quite recreate at home.

I also like to think of myself as a bit of connoisseur when it comes to a sour cocktail  - the conceit making up the second part of their name – after drinking a few in my time. The Ewing, who shakes up the most awesome Sidecars, has even more experience in this niche field and judged the Rye'n'Black sour with red and pear as good – although missing that acerbic killer punch - while the original Chick'n'Club, with apple freeze dried berries, was even better.

Both made great appetite sharpeners, especially when imbibed along to fantastic soundtrack of New Order, Deacon Blue and the Communards.

While a starter seemed entirely superfluous, knowing how much food was already on its way, I couldn’t pass up one of the newest additions to the menu; Mexi-nese nachos – a hybrid dish of Chengdu chicken and bacon (an intensely spiced, meaty ragu), green chillies and kimchi cheese sauce, A glorious combination of salty, crunchy and cheesy, peppered with bursts of bright chilli heat.

While my experiences with home deep fat frying are limited after I got rid of our fryer -  to the unbridled delight of the Ewing, who was happy to sample the finished goods but was less enamoured with the grease and dust and trails of stale oil from another abandoned experiment – I know the difficulties of getting that crisp carapace while heating the insides right through. A lesson bitterly learnt after a batch of arancini with a black crust and a stubbornly solid cheesy centre.

So quite how the chefs manage to batter and fry a whole chicken so the coating is crisp and golden, the breast is still tender and those tricky little crevices where the legs and wings meet the body are fully cooked through is quite the mystery. 

But manage it they do, and the result is this (quickly demolished) burnished beauty, ordered K Pop style with the addition of extra squiggles of gochujang mayo and chilli vinegar zig-zagged in a Jackson Pollock-esque way across the top. Even in giant form, I maintain this is as fine as fried chicken gets; poultry perfection that rivals even the classic roast for the best Sunday dinner.

The hot and sour Korean sauces served with the chook were perfectly tempered by our choice soothing sides. The dripping fries, ordered with an awesome St Agur creamy blue cheese dip, were rated by the Ewing as McDonald's scale good (a ringing endorsement). 

While a dish of crisp green slaw, made with shredded sugar snaps in a tangy dressing and topped with black sesame seeds, was exceptionally good. In fact, with the nachos and chicken that had come before it, it’s a testament to its deliciousness that this was still possibly the best thing I ate all afternoon.

As Einstein (probably didn’t) say ‘insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results’. In this case I’m quite happy to confirm I’m completely lucid and the chicken (and everything else) is just as good at the Seven Dials branch – possibly even better as it’s far easier to get to for those on the west side. Although I’ve already persuaded the Ewing there’s no harm in returning to properly test the hypothesis.

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

Ending up in King's Cross

A fact that has been well documented on this blog is my enduring love of pizza. Thick, thin, frozen, coal-fired, I love it's easy-going informality and it's a passion that's endured since my Mum used to buy the cheap cheese and tomato pizzas the size of a saucer from Bejam. The perfect accompaniment for a marathon evening of Gladiators and Blind Date on a Saturday night.

Fast forward a few years and that still sounds like my idea of a perfect weekend. And, although they can't fulfil my nostalgic love for prime time game shows, Pizza Union - with branches in King's Cross and Shoreditch - fling some of the cheapest pies in town.

Part of the reason for the rock bottom prices is the slick self-service premise - think old school canteen but with trays of olives and roasted fava beans instead of the dried out Turkey Drummers and jam doughnuts of of my youth.

After selecting your drinks from the cabinet at the entrance you move along to the main counter to order and pay, picking up your trendy snacks and pots of extra Parmesan, chilli sauce and garlic mayo on the way. Find a stool at a communal bench, then it's a short wait until your buzzer goes off and you can collect your trays of freshly wood-fired pizza and side salads. Not the venue for a romantic dinner a deux perhaps, but perfect for a quick pit stop.

At 12.50 a bottle, the vino tinto - chosen from the very short wine list; one white, one red, one fizz - was about as good as you'd expect it to be. Which was to say not very, but at that price who's complaining. Icy cold Peroni and San Pellegrino are also available, as well as tepid thimbles of London tap.

Pizza union's pies are Roman style; aka the crisp-based ones you can pick up in a slice and fold into your mouth a la Sex and the City or Do the Right Thing, depending where you get your cultural references from. Whatever way you look at it, at a generous 12 inches and with prices starting at a bargain basement £3.95 for a margherita, you can't really go wrong.

Our first pick was the Romana; wild broccoli, mozzarella, speck and Gorgonzola (instead of goats cheese). Smoky and salty with the bitter tang of the greens, this was a fine way to spend six fifty of anyone's money. Consider splashing out another 50 pence for a pot of the aforementioned (Nando-esque) chilli sauce for your crusts.

We also ordered a fungi (this time with added goats cheese) which perfectly showcased why people who don't like mushrooms are Wrong. A mixed salad with olives, peppers and Parmesan - served in a utilitarian metal mixing bowl proved another tasty way to up our veg intake.

As good as the pizza was, there was something I was even more excited about; the calzone ring stuffed with Nutella and mascarpone cheese. While I've seen these on the menu before (Pizza Pilgrims even do a customisable one at their new Shoreditch branch) I've never been quite up to the challenge after eating a hefty Neapolitan pie. Thankfully, their Northern brethren are crisper and lighter meaning plenty of room for pud.

As ever celebrating excess when it comes to desserts, the Ewing also decided to order two tubs of Oddono's ice cream - in pistachio and salted caramel flavours. A good call as it turns out as both were very fine indeed; even more so when eased out their tubs and into the centre of the molten calzone ring.

Pizza ice cream, cheap wine and hanging around Kings Cross late on a Saturday - it really was like the last twenty years hadn't happened. And to capitalise on that 90's vibe, and prove we've still got it, the evening finished with the Dandy Warhols at the Roundhouse. Just a casual, casual easy thing. Is it? It is for me.

Thursday, 6 April 2017

Wycombe bites: The Works

In anticipation of our extended holiday to the Southern hemisphere - to meet the latest addition to the clan and celebrate an auspicious birthday – I’ve given up booze and sugary stuff and pretty much anything worth eating or drinking. It’s boring, and joyless, and I’ve already found myself having a two-pint Guinness lunch ‘cos it’s St Patrick’s Day’ and eating a steak and kidney pudding for breakfast ‘just because’.

Thankfully, as the salad-eating regime has been less than half-hearted on occasion, there's still been plenty of opportunities to support the Works, the latest indie offering on Wycombe’s high street. With its selection of - temporarily verboten - ice creams, cookies, pancakes, waffles and milkshakes, and their lovely staff who bring a little extra sweetness to the proceedings.

It’s not all kid’s stuff, with a drinks menu that includes beers such  as the peerless Beavertown Gamma Ray and Meantime, boozy shakes, cider, wine and champagne. The prosecco comes on tap and can be ordered with a variety of different fruity adornments or even with their homemade sorbet for a decidedly grown-up slushie. Perfect for taking pictures of people taking pictures for Instagram.

After visiting their original branch in Aylesbury for a deliciously ostentatious golden Ferrero Rocher ice cream sundae the Christmas before last, their most recent festive offerings included a turkey dinner, complete with stuffing, bacon and cranberry sauce, stuffed inside a Belgian waffle. As much as I love the combination of sweet and savoury, I would have preferred the advertised gravy rather than a slick of maple syrup across the top. Otherwise, top marks.

Other fillings I’ve enjoyed, which can be served on either a freshly made waffle or crepe, include chorizo and roasted pepper; classic mozzarella, mushroom and spinach; and a dissected hot dog with beef chilli, jalapenos and onions (undocumented as I was sitting next to my boss while I was eating it, trying to avoid the inevitable grease stains down my shirt and salad in my teeth).

As good as the savoury offering are, and most are pretty good, it’s impossible to ignore the fridge filled with a cornucopia of different coloured gelato as you walk in. Available as individual scoops, with a variety of customisable toppings, or bring your appetite (or a a friend) and try one of their sundaes, which can all also be ordered on top of a waffle of crepe.

While there are a myriad of different combinations, including banoffee pie, hot apple caramel crumble and eton mess, my favourites are choc-based. Although a minor criticism is the low melting point of some of the flavours I’ve tried, notably the chocolate which seems to liquefy before you’ve stuck your spoon in the sundae glass. A small trade-off for such light and creamy gelato, I suppose, but dig-in quick (not a problem if you're with the Ewing) if you don’t want to drink your desert.

One of the ‘firmer’ flavours - and now a firm favourite after trying (several) helpings when they had their recent pound a scoop promotion – is the Peanutella, peanut ice cream swirled with a ribbon of melted chocolate and whole nuts. This is genuinely one of the best ice creams I have eaten and is particularly good in the Nutty Professor sundae; with pistachio and chocolate ice creams, toffee sauce and extra nuts; or, even better, served as an affogato with a double espresso.

Not only is it torturous that I frequently have to walk past, I now see on social media that their range of gelato has been joined by a salted peanut butter chocolate pretzel flavour and they have a new Easter Egg Hunt sundae on waffle - topped with gelato, whipped cream, Malteser bunnies, Creme Eggs and a 'surprise'. Maybe there's time for one last blowout before I have to fit into my beach wear...

Thursday, 30 March 2017

Oxford: Pints and Pizza Tour

Last year Chiltern Railways announced that, for the first time in 100 years, a new route between a major British city (Oxford) and the capital was going to be opening. Meaning the city of dreaming spires was now a little over half an hour away from home. 

For most people this would have probably meant planning a nice trip to the Ashmolean, or the botanical gardens, or punting on the River Cherwell, but the one thing I was most excited about was all the fabulous pubs we could now visit and still be able to stagger safely home. And, after having recent cravings for a 'proper' pizza, the Ewing promised me I could combine my two great loves (after her of course) on the #pintsandpizzatour.

Our first stop was supposed to be Beerd, the second branch of the 'craft pub' off-shoot from West Country brewers Bath Ales. But, after pretty much jogging all the way from the station in my excitement, this sign was the first thing I saw.

Upon enquiring inside - on the hopeful chance the poster was out of date - the bar staff reported the closure of the kitchen was linked with St Austell's takeover of Bath Ales, with the company currently reviewing if the pub will continue to be managed or be passed over to a tenant landlord. While skipping food for an early beer was tempting, there were still several stops to get through and I needed some ballast to stop the ship from keeling.

Thankfully we still had enough strength for a stroll around the corner, just in time our next port of call to open its doors for the day. The White Rabbit is an independent pub serving real ales and pizza just off Gloucester Green. And, with a kitchen headed by an Italian and fresh ingredients imported from the homeland each week, I had high hopes for our first lunch.

To drink, the Ewing tried a new XT brew the Jester experimental the first using the CF125 hop, to be renamed something catchier if the beer takes off. I went classic with an Oxford Scholar, a traditional English mid-strength bitter from the nearby Shotover Brewery. Both were decent enough (especially after several weeks of not drinking), although the enjoyment was slightly marred by the 'floaties' of yeast in the bottom of both our glasses.

My margarita, with a swirl of chilli oil cleverly disguised in a amaretto bottle to make us appear like hardened drinkers to the table next door, was perfect simplicity. The crust was a little more robust than a classic Neapolitan pizza, meaning you could cut a wedge and fold it up NYC style, and as I ate it I imagined I was Kevin MaCallister, on Christmas Eve. Which is a very good thing.

The Ewing went fancy with a Lumberjack - a pizza bianca with mozzarella, porcini mushrooms, truffle cream, speck & parsley. While I was initially a little dubious the smoky ham and funky mushrooms riffed nicely with the milky mozzarella and puffy base. Dare I say, it might have been even nicer than mine.

Next we went straight back to the old school with a trip to the White Horse on the High Street. The building dates back to the 16th century and has become more recently famous for appearing in episodes of Morse, Lewis and Endeavour. Eagle-eyed fans might even have noticed the photos of John Hancock on the wall during a recent episode of the latter show. Very meta.

Regular beers include Brakespeare’s Oxford Gold and White Horse’s Wayland Smithy. I tried the latter while then Ewing went for another Shotover Brewing co. beer, this time their session bitter, Oxford Prospect (the last pint in the cask, much to the chap behind hers dismay). Two ales I’m sure Endeavour - or his creator, and beer fan, the late Colin Dexter - would have been very happy sipping while ruminating over the latest body.

I’m not sure our detective would have been quite as pleased to be cheek to jowl with the throng of (very entertaining) tourists from Oklahoma drinking mulled wine – it appears hot wine is big business in Oxford, even in March. And yes, I am aware of the irony of my comments, being a day-tripper myself. Although, thankfully for the Ewing’s sake, I seem to be getting less curmudgeonly as time goes by.

Another of Oxford’s plethora of famed hostelries is the Eagle and Child (A.K.A the Bird and Baby) where The Inklings - a  1930's writers' group with members including Tolkien and C.S Lewis - who would meet to discuss unfinished manuscripts in the 'Rabbit Room' at the rear. 

Now it’s a Nicholson’s pub, and while it retains its original frontage, the interior – once you walk past the atmospheric and cosy alcoves by the entrance -  has more of an identikit feel, not helped by the narrow proportions of the building and lack of natural light.

The selection of beers is sound though, with four ales on offer including the serviceable Nicholson’s Pale. I chose the, so-so, Hopback Winter Lightening, being as it was geographically the closest and a beer that I have enjoyed in its famous summer incarnation. Better was the Ewing’s choice of a pint of Dave from Great Heck in North Yorks. A very decent toasty dark ale that she kindly let me share while we plotted our further adventures thanks to a postcard we had picked up at the White Horse.

Our penultimate stop was the Rickety Press, in a sunny corner of Jericho. The pub is part of the Dodo group (along with the Rusty Bicycle on the Magdalen Road), which, certainly from the selection on offer when we visited, seems to be tied to Arkell's beers. A fairly uninspiring looking range (I had already told the Ewing to stay away from the Old Rosie cider), although I was pretty pleased with my pint of 3B Bitter, with a tight creamy head not often seen south of the Watford Gap.

Already, less than a third of the way into the new year, a contender for Best Thing I have eaten in 2017 is the Rickety Press’ n’duja pizza. Not so much for the chunks of fiery Calabrian sausage, delicious as they were, but for the tangy, chewy sourdough base speckled with charred spots from its ferocious firing. I didn’t even need the home made dipping sauce for my crusts, and I love a dipping sauce for my crusts.

The topping on the pizza bianca here - speck, rocket, gorgonzola and pickled pears - was slightly less successful than at our previous stop. Although the magic of blue cheese on a pizza (or on anything) should never be underestimated, especially when paired with the same gloriously chewy base.

And, as even we struggled to finish our second round of pies, it meant I got to enjoy the leftovers (thanks to the Ewing for carefully carrying the box upright all the way home) later that evening with a, judicious, splash of truffle oil like our pie at the White Rabbit - the best of both worlds.

After all those pints and pizza it was time for a little pudding and what better than a G&D ice cream, from their Davis branch on Little Clarendon Street. My waffle cone - filled with a special Rolo flavour, designed for Valentine's Day (I didn't share) was the perfect accompaniment to a stroll across to the Denys Wilkinson Building. The beautiful Brutalist home to Oxford's Nuclear and particle physics departments. 

As we slowly swayed our satiated way back to the station, I'll leave you with the, rather apt, words of Max Beerbohm; 'that old bell, presage of a train, had just sounded through Oxford Station; and the undergraduates who were waiting there, gay figures in tweed or flannels, moved to the margin of the platform and gazed idly up the line'.

Monday, 20 March 2017

Love buns in Brum

Last month saw the Ewing and I celebrate 5 years of marriage (or 1.25, if you consider we were married on a leap day). As love is all about compromise, she graciously entertained the idea of visiting Coventry Cathedral on a windswept February afternoon, while I tried not to snore too loudly through Sean Lock at the Birmingham Apollo.

One thing we could both readily agree on was a surfeit of food and drink to celebrate. So after cocktails the night before at the charming 40 St Paul’s – a bracing Gilpin’s dirty martini and a dangerously smooth G and T made with Blackwoods 60, a 60% gin that is, purportedly, currently the strongest available (also try the smoked and salted gin if you see it) – we elected to chase the cobwebs away with a brunch trip to Ken Ho in Birmingham’s Chinatown.

Being faced with platters of sticky buns and bamboo baskets of steaming hot dumplings always seems to do the trick if I’m feeling in a parlous state, not to mention the free facial you get as they arrive at the table. Throw in some crispy roast meat for protein, a good dash of soy to top up the sodium levels and stir fried greens for iron and you’ve got the perfect hangover cure.

It’s a cliché to say it, but it’s always a good sign when you're the only white faces in the house; even more so when a steady queue was already building behind us at 12:30 on a grey Wednesday. And, after assuring our waiter that we were actually there for the dim sum menu, rather than the Chinglish classics (as much as I love a deep-fried prawn ball), we got started with a pot of jasmine tea and some wonderfully short and flaky roast pork puffs. I love the trashiness of good Chinese baking, and here the balance between the lard-enriched pastry and sweet filling was perfectly balanced. Like a superior, Asian-inspired Greg’s sausage roll.

A classic test of the kitchen is har gau - those plump, shell-shaped shrimp dumplings – and these were belters. While the skin wasn’t a gossamer thin as some (with my chopstick skills, I prefer them slightly thicker, anyway) the filling was plump and bouncy with discernible chunks of sweet prawn. Better still were spinach and prawn dumplings, their lurid cases stuffed with a garlicky mixture of chopped seafood and greens.

Another good reason to visit Ken Ho for lunch is for their selection of roast meats, served with choi sum atop a bed of rice or noodles. We had the holy trilogy of roast duck, char sui and crispy pork belly with crispy egg noodles, with my favourite bits being the slices of sweet and smoky barbecued loin and the glass-like postage stamps of perfect crackling.

As much as I love the combination of sweet and stodge, I grew rather jaded about char sui buns after coming back from a trip to China and realising nothing served back at home could ever seem to match those pillowy clouds of porkiness. The Ewing, however, never stops trying and is always quick to put in her order - apart from this time, when she acquiesced after my grumbles and ordered the chicken and mushroom ones instead.

Sadly these buns missed the salty spiciness of the traditional meat filling contrasting with the puffy dough. I was suitably chastised, as well as being left to eat my way through the unfortunate (or fought over) third bun that makes sharing dim sum between a couple so potentially tricky.  A sad situation that not even their fearsome chilli oil did much to rectify.

Thankfully, things ended on a high note, with a customary plate of custard buns. Far preferable to a doughnut, these had the perfect sweet dough to gooey, golden filling ratio with a nice textural crunch from being deep fried.

If that wasn't pleasure enough, I even poked a few chunks of leftover roast duck into the centre of my bun for a heart-stopping mouthful. Although, even the best dim sum couldn't send my heart as aflutter as my lovely lunching companion. Don't worry, I spared her the romantic talk over our meal; even the Ewing can go off her food. Happy anniversary, Lump. Here's to another year of eating adventures.