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.

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Spurs Are on Their Way to Wembley

You’d think, after all the nerve-shredding high drama of our visit to White Hart Lane, the Ewing would have been put off football for a long while. But, mere weeks later she was clamouring to go and see them again, this time at Wembley versus KAA Gent, in pursuit of a place in the last 16 of the Europa League.

While Spurs European campaign so far this season had ended in ignominy, no wins at Wembley (their adopted home for continental forays while the ‘new’ Lane is being built) and being booted out of the Champions League after failing to qualify from their group, I had a better feeling about their match against the Belgian Buffalos, despite a thoroughly turgid first leg the week before where the Lilywhites had contrived to lose one nil and failed to chalk up the vital away goal (an appalling match where they played with no vigour at all - TE).

A girl can't chant on an empty stomach (the Ewing had spent most the week learning the words to Ossie's Dream, Chas and Daves effort for the 1981 cup final - 'Spurs are on their way to Wembley, Tottenham's gonna do it again! They can't stop'em, the boys from Tottenham, the boys from White Hart Lane, Oi!' Repeat until your wife gets pissed off with you - TE), so after a rather overcrowded train ride - thanks to the best efforts of Storm Doris blowing trees across the railway tracks from Beaconsfield to Birmingham - we stopped for a pre-match meal at Karahe Queen. 

A cheap and cheerful hole in the wall complete with laminated menus; Pakistani pop music; (very) late night opening and a BYO booze policy (a four pack of Ghost Ship, we're not lager louts you know), it's the perfect place to call in for some sustenance before or after the game.

Thanks to a diary conflict, I had already been out for lunch earlier in the day (a chilli dog on a belgian waffle followed by a chocolate peanut ice cream affogato) and, unsurprisingly, was feeling rather delicate of appetite. Equally unsurprisingly, the Ewing was primed and ready for action, so she started on the gratis dips and salad, featuring rather wan discs of carrot, while we waited for one of her favourites from the starter section, paneer tikka.

While I personally prefer risking a bout of heartburn from the spicier green chilli version of the familiar cottage cheese chunks, the tikka spice marinated cubes - threaded onto a skewer before being grilled in the tandoor and served on a bed of of pepper and onion – were still very good.

The keema here, as well as including the more familiar pea, is also offered with the addition of tinned sweetcorn. An ingredient that also crops up in a variety of the meat and veg karahi dishes on the menu. While this may horrify some, much like when the yellow kernels crop up on pizza, apparently it’s a familiar addition to many home-style curries in the north of India and Pakistan. I liked it, but then I like pretty much anything that included the Jolly Green Giant’s staple food source (yes, even the occasional deep pan pizza).

Something you also don’t often see on an anglicised menu is methi, or fenugreek leaves. Here they were added to the chicken karahi; a curry with tomatoes, ginger, garlic and 'secret spices'; and cooked and served in the eponymous iron pot. If I was being extra picky, I might have preferred a little extra greenery, but overall it was a well-balanced dish - nicely spiced and not too rich and oily.

To finish, we shared an aloo paratha, layers of enriched wholewheat dough stuffed with a spiced potato mixture and fried. If anyone’s come up with a better idea than stuffing bread with more carbs then I’ve yet to hear it, and far better for mopping up your curry than pedestrian pilau rice.

The bill came to a shade over £20, with tip, a not unreasonable amount of dosh for a reasonable amount of food – although it was only my reduced capacity after my lunchtime escapades which prevented me ordering anymore. 

Reduced capacity wasn’t a fate that befell Wembley later that evening, after a reduced price ticket deal saw Spurs sell out a full capacity stadium for the game. Sadly, although the N17 faithful were in good voice, a silly challenge from Alli (the author's favourite - TE) and a goal from Kane (the wonder boy, my fave! - TE) - sadly at the wrong end - put pay to our progress. Still, if the rumours are true and my beloved team relocated temporarily to Brent for the 2018/19 season then chance are I’ll be sampling the menu again.

Monday, 27 February 2017

Now My Heart is Full

When I first met my wife she announced, just after telling me her favourite drinks were Black Russians or sweet pear cider, that she only really ate fish. As a confirmed beer-drinking carnivore, who had been living with a vegetarian for five years, I would have been less distraught to hear she was a Gooner who liked pulling the wings off butterflies in her spare time. Thankfully, pretty much five minutes later, she was drinking pints of ale while gnawing racks of ribs with her bare hands. Something I like to frequently remind her about, although she tells the story somewhat differently….

Anyway, as much as she loves most sources of protein, including a manic new ‘hummus in the Nutribullet’ phase she’s going through, fish and seafood remains a firm favourite. So it was an easy decision when it came to choosing what to eat on our recent jaunt down to Brighton.

Our Sunday night fish supper was at Bankers a popular takeaway and restaurant on the Western Road that are the only company in the UK to be awarded the Icelandic Responsible Fisheries Management Award, another ethical cause close to the Ewing's heart.

Inside is clean and bright, if a little utilitarian, while the fascinating range of clientele, with their quirky social mores, made me feel like I had stepped into a modern day Orwell novel full of day-trippers and secret trysts by the sea.

Keeping it classy, as always, we started with a bottle of the muscadet and a couple of wallies. No, not us, but the gherkins that were served as a kind of aperitivo, East Sussex style. If you’re feeling really fancy then a bottle of Monopole Blue Top is yours for £28. Not far off supermarket prices.

We shared the cold platter of stone cold classics to start – smoked salmon, mackerel pate and prawn cocktail - which, at £6.50, also proved great value. There are few things I like better than a prawn cocktail (I recently made the Ewing a giant version in a trifle bowl, for Valentine’s Day) and this one was no exception. The pate and salmon were also decent and served in generous portions, unlike the triangles of brown bread, which we squabbled over as we tried to scoop up every last bit of the smoked fish.

Grilled dover sole, while a touch over-cooked, was nevertheless a marvellous treat. It’s a sweet, buttery fish that needed nothing more than a squeeze of lemon and had the advantage of coming with both a generous side salad – including some outré beetroot chunks, not seen since the 80s - and a great bowl of perfect ‘chippy’ chips.

Large cod -  traditionally battered and deep fried, skin left on in the southern style - was also pretty good, but not up to the heady heights of the accompanying pile of chipped potatoes; especially when they were dunked into the complimentary tartare sauce. Boiled peas, however, were disappointingly watery and bland. Even the Ewing sadly forwent them after trying a spoonful.

After breakfasting on kippers at our hotel, followed by a stroll around the lanes to pick up mid-morning (fish-free) pastries, we headed to the Regency, a Brighton institution on the King's Road, for lunch. Another seaside classic that's been preserved in aspic, offering everything from fried breakfasts to Sunday lunch, it specialises in fish and seafood dishes with an Italian twist.

A ‘side’ of three scallops – although a couple of bivalves had been squeezed into two of the shells – served grilled and doused in garlic butter, were joyous. At £6.95, these were one of the priciest options on the menu, but a treat that was worth every penny. A pile of these, alongside a heap of fat Atlantic prawns, are very strong contenders for the starter in my death row meal menu - don’t worry, no crime has been committed; yet….)

If the scallops were good value then my main, seafood risotto, was a steal. Tomatoey rice, packed with plump prawns, sweet clams, mussels and squid and drizzled with the remnants of garlic butter from our scallops, this is about the best fun you can have in Brighton for under a tenner (and without breaking any indecency laws).

The Ewing chose the last of the seasonal sardines, before they rush off to spawn in the springtime, served simply with garlic, lemon and virginal boiled potatoes, sullied only with a sprinkling of fresh parsley. A dish that made me think of long hot summers in the south of Portugal, eating barbecued fish while watching the waves of the Atlantic crashing on the rocky shore. Not too dissimilar from our view at the Regency. Give or take twenty degrees.

We had chosen starters the day before, but now it was pudding time And what a time to be alive, with steamed syrup pudding, banoffee pie and profiteroles, three of my all-time faves all on the menu. As much as I was tempted, who could resist the lure spotted dick, or Richard, as it’s been coyly renamed here. Steamed sultana-studded, spiced sponge drowned in thick Bird's custard, what ever it's called, is always going to hit the spot.

The Ewing finished with one of her favourites, a deep-fried banana fritter served topped with ice cream and sugar wafers. A speciality her Dad spent much time perfecting when she was young, (served with toffee cream made by mixing double cream with a can of condensed milk that had been boiled for 3 hours - TE) this was a syrup covered trip down memory lane.

In an age of bland homogenisation, both restaurants are proper seaside gems that are well worth a visit - offering forgotten classics with old-fashioned prices to match. Whether you're after a takeaway tray of cod chips or a slap up lobster thermidor, despite the Ewing's very best efforts there's still plenty more fish in the sea.

Tuesday, 21 February 2017

A Big Day in the North (of London)

'The great fallacy is that the game is first and last about winning. It is nothing of the kind. The game is about glory, it is about doing things in style and with a flourish, about going out and beating the other lot, not waiting for them to die of boredom'
Danny Blanchflower

I remember avidly watching the FA cup draw on TV as a child, waiting impatiently for Tottenham’s ball to be pulled out of the velvet bag and cursing when they always seemed to be one of the last teams to be picked. Which is why - after inadvertently turning the TV over just as the draw for the fourth round took place a few weeks ago – I was surprised and even, after all these years, a little excited to see Spurs were the first ones out the hat. Things got better when the next ball out was Wycombe Wanderers, our local team who play just up the road from the Ewing’s birthplace. A hometown derby was on the cards.

As well as stoking a bit of friendly family rivalry, it was also the perfect chance for me to make one final visit to the Lane before the old stadium is demolished – to be replaced by a swanky new 60,00 stadium on the same site - while indoctrinating the Ewing into the joys (and pain) of seeing a match at one of the finest stadiums in the land (after reiterating that cheering for the Chairboys in the home end was probably not a good move).

It was over decade ago when I used to trail up the High Road to the Lane - the days of Kanute and Keane rather than Kane and Kyle Walker - I managed to pick up a cheap Kappa dark blue away strip (back in the days when I was svelte enough to, just about, pull it off) that I wore under my work shirt for a whole week after we beat Chelsea in the League Cup. So I had planned a day of revisiting old haunts and discovering new ones.

First beer of the day was at the Beehive, perfectly situated about halfway between Seven Sisters and the Lane, where it had to be Hopspur amber ale, from Tottenham-based Redemption Brewery. We also clearly qualified as responsible adults as we were served our beer in dimpled pint pots, whereas the away fans coming in behind us got their lager in plastic glasses.

London cask beer often gets a bad rap, and often deservedly so. This, however, was a tip-top pint, balancing a gentle bitterness with a tight and creamy head. A dangerously drinkable session ale that I could have happily kept quaffing in their sunny beer garden all afternoon.

Man can’t live on beer alone (although I have tried) - and their barbecue shack, in said garden, was only just firing up for the day - so I popped down the road for a slice of tottenham cake. Originally invented by Quaker baker Henry Chalkley, it’s probably the only pink-hued foodstuff a Spurs fan would consider eating on match day, the colour originally coming from the mulberries that grew on Tottenham Friends burial ground. Of course, that’s now been replaced by e-numbers but the fluffy vanilla sponge, topped with a tooth-achingly sweet water icing, still remains a Proustian madeline.

Next stop was the Bricklayers, on the High Road just north of the ground. It's home fans only (and a cash bar) on match days, the Brickies is known as as one of the best places to have a sing-song, while surrounded by a plethora of Tottenham memorabilia, before the game.

Sadly the beer isn't up to the heights of the decor, with only lager, in seemingly every conceivable variety, cider and Guinness on offer. As there was no Holsten (sponsors on my very first Spur's shirt - another away number, this time in canary yellow) I went for Heineken, while the Ewing picked a pint of the Black Stuff.

I haven't had the pleasure of drinking the Dutch lager since a trip to the brewery in Amsterdam, and it seems I haven't missed much. Still, there's a decent beer garden if it gets too snug in the pub, complete with TV screens and a good old fashioned burger bar, and a cold Guinness always goes down well on keg.

Many moons ago the Ewing and I bonded over our love of fried chicken (and cheap sushi, and pints of cider) and I had been informed that Chick King was the best in N17 (despite the less than hench review by the Pengest Munch). Two ‘two piece and (excellent) chips’, eaten standing at the chrome counter that runs along the side of the room, and all washed down with a chocolate milkshake made the perfect pre-match meal. 

Apparently the secret coating contains cinnamon, amongst other witchcraft. Whatever the ingredients, the outside was crisp, keeping the bird juicy within. The queue was not too fearsome an hour before kick-off, but as we left, the hordes were stretching up the High Road, so plan accordingly if you fancy a fillet burger or some crispy wings before the game.

There was just enough time for swift half before the game, so we dashed around the corner to the Antwerp Arms. The pub has been here, overlooking Bruce Castle Park, since 1822 but has recently been taken over by the Bruce Castle Village Association after it was sold to developers, and is now run as a community pub.

As well as a great story about how neighbourly spirit and perseverance can stop the wrecking balls rolling in, the Annie is a lovely pub serving a good selection of local beers. We enjoyed one of the best, Beavertown's Gamma Ray, in their sunny garden. New bobble hat model's own.

One place where (most) of the locals are glad to see the cranes in is at the new Northumberland Development Project. A project which will see the new Spurs ground being built that will seat 61,000 - including a 17,000-seat single tier stand, the biggest in the UK - and feature its own cheese tasting room, microbrewery and bakery. The cleverest part is how the new stadium is being built on the original White Hart Lane site. You can already see it taking shape, including the 'nibble' taken out of the current North Stand, as you approach their current ground.

Of course, their are the inevitable downsides: building works will see Spurs moving temporarily to Wembley next season (a current bogey ground, in Europe at least); the stadium will no longer be called the Lane (naming rights being sold for cold had cash) and and public transport and parking in N17 is still lacking, to say the least. But overall it's a welcome, and necessary move. 

While WHL is still one of the finest grounds in the land, with a great atmosphere and history, it's also too small, with no real potential for expansion, and it's beginning to show it's age. From the pictures, the stands in the new ground are positioned close to the pitch (one of the best things about the current ground) and the large stands should hopefully help to regenerate that famous atmosphere. 

A rousing atmosphere that was rather muted from the home fans for most of the game on our visit (the away fans were in fine form) that saw us sneak a 4-3 victory with a very cheeky, 96 minute winner. Typical Spurs but a great game of cup football.

In desperate need of something to steady the nerves - and because I couldn't walk past Tottenham Hale on a Saturday afternoon without calling in for a jar - we walked over to Beavertown Brewery for a drink. Fortuitously it was also the annual launch of their Heavy Water sea salt and sour cherry imperial stout; and this year they also brewed limited edition kegs with chilli and with cocoa and hazelnuts.

Ok, I'll admit it, Heavy Water has never been a favourite of mine (although I love their India Cowbell india stout), but the chocolate/nut addition gave it a little extra oomph, and made it dangerously drinakble. And at 9% I'm just glad I wasn't drowning my sorrows...

Beer demands kebabs so we headed back to the High Road to OZ Erciyes Ocakbasi. It seems we weren't alone as, at half six on a Saturday, they had already run out of both lamb and chicken doner; which seemed rather unfortunate for a kebab restaurant. Thankfully, this turn of events lead to us choosing the mixed grill for two, cooked on the fearsome open charcoal grill along the side of the room. Yes, there is a man somewhere behind that wall of smoke.

As our meat was grilling we entertained ourselves with some excellent cacik - strained yoghut with garlic and cucumber - a basket of fresh Turkish bread and a chopped salad sprinkled with sumac, all provided gratis, alongside giant lamachun – topped with spiced lamb, which cost the princely sum of two pounds. 

A temperamental beast - many restaurants only seem to serve lamachun during certain hours, which is almost certainly not when you're visiting – I think it also represents one of the bargains of the restaurant world. It’s also Stealth’s favourite, so I always have to order one in her honour.

After eating solidly since we arrived, even the Ewing looked slightly fear-stricken when a mountain of assorted types of meat, juices soaking into a bed of fluffy white rice and more toasted Turkish bread, arrived tableside. A fear I soon shared when, no matter how many gloriously crispy lamb ribs, chunks of kofte or smoky shish we ate, the end seemed no nearer in sight.

When I glanced up to see my wife looking pink and clammy, half a chicken wing in hand and a despairing look in her eyes, I knew we were done. Thankfully, I think they’re fairly well-versed in this sort of thing and were happy to box up our leftovers - I was also thankful when they bought glasses of complimentary sweetened Turkish tea, for the digestion. An offer that was somewhat undermined by another complimentary offering of a tray of sutlac – baked rice pudding – one of my favourite deserts. Needless to say I found a little extra room and even the Ewing managed to activate the magical pudding stomach to help me finish it off.

And, as if she hasn't suffered enough putting up with me for all these years, the Ewing - as a newly adopted, and most dedicated Spurs fan - has just condemned herself to join me in a continuing cycle of thwarted dreams and disappointment. Wouldn't change it (or her) for the world, though. (best day ever! - TE).