Friday, 21 July 2017

Will and Vics

Until this year Harrogate has consistently topped the poll of the happiest place to live in in the UK, a crown recently stolen by the cheeky Essex charmer, Leigh-on-Sea. Having visited both in the last twelve months and enjoyed, respectively, a Fat Rascal at Betty’s and pints of prawns and a beer down at the cockle sheds, I say it’s pretty much a dead heat. Although you can eat a Rossi’s whippy on the seafront in Leigh, which may just nudge them ahead.

One advantage that Harrogate holds is its proximity to my Aunt and Uncle’s house, making it the perfect place for us Ladies wot Lunch to visit for a refined stroll around the Valley Gardens before luncheon at stalwart on the restaurant scene, Will and Vics.

Downstairs is a curious mix half-olde worldy wine bar and half airy bistro, with a posher dining area upstairs. Popular, even on a Monday lunchtime, there was nearly no room at the inn, and we were tucked away in the cosy alcove just off the bar.

While warm and welcoming, it was also rather worrying that every conceivable surface seemed to be covered in excerpts of the menu - from 'British tapas' to a roster of daily specials. While I can see the potential for spontaneous enticement as you're enjoying a drink, even I found it exhausting to be bombarded with such a huge array of strange-sounding snacks as we were waiting to be seated.

Thankfully they also offer a simple set luch menu (with a slightly amended prix fixe for later in the evening) with two courses for an eminently reasonable ten quid - although, slightly strangely, to add a third course from said was an extra seven pounds.

Bread was the soft, sweet malty stuff that my Mum used to buy warm from the new-fangled in-store bakery at the supermarket (really feeling my age now), and that I used to eat slathered thickly with butter for breakfast as a treat. Fast forward a couple of decades and it still had the same nostalgic appeal.

Fish and chips – haddock, obvs, as we were north of the Watford Gap – was served in Whitby Whaler sized-portions and came with mushy peas and some excellent homemade tartare sauce. If I was being ultra-fussy the posh vinegar missed the point of an abrasive slosh of Sarsons, but luckily ketchup seems to taste the same, whether its out of a ramekin or squeezy bottle.

My Uncle also chose the fish, and  we decided a pint of something cold and creamy was in order to help wash it down. The Theakstons Pale ale - a keg beer, based on their bottled pale ale of the 80’s, and brewed locally in Masham - proved just the ticket.

On first appearances I feared the Ewing’s chicken Milanese appeared a little dry, I had also breezily assured her it was going to be served with frites, rather than ‘fat chips’. Fortuitously both poultry and fried potatoes were very well received, the chicken in particular being excellent; hot, juicy and crisp while being a slightly sad reminder that it’s a dish not seen on more menus.

Of all the puddings, summer fruit pudding must rank right up there. Sadly, like rice pudding - which is also firmly in my top five - it's seldom seen on restaurant menus.  Seemingly the idea of combining stale bread and desert seems to divide and conquer, although I don't rate it nearly as highly when made with sponge cake. 

Thankfully this was properly constructed from white sliced (no pale bits showing through the carapace) and a perfect example of squidgy summeriness, stuffed with tart fruit and topped with a quenelle of Stamfrey Farm clotted cream.

The Ewing's coconut panna cotta served with a mango compote was equally summery and also very good. The panna cotta itself was clean and refreshing - although set rather like a Trump Jr comb-over than a wobbly like a Titian nude - and the mango, one of my favourite fruits, fragrant and tangy.

My aunt, not a pud fan, chose the lemon curd cheese cake to share, and promptly scoffed the physalis on top, before asking if i wanted to capture a picture of it for posterity for the blog. Here she is after replacing the papery skin on top and assuring me any eagle-eyed readers would hardly notice...

Of course, she may just have been happy to live near Harrogate; If I had Will and Vics just down the road I’d be very happy to live here too.

Monday, 17 July 2017

The cat that got the cream

I like curry; I like a the Guardian food review recommendation; and I very much like the company of my cousins, Uncle and Aunt. So when the latter proposed a Sunday drinking beer and eating at The Cat’s Pyjamas, recently favourably rated by Jay in the Grauniad, what wasn’t there to like?

It’s unavoidable that the combination of craft beer and Indian street food in this part of the world will bring comparisons to Bundobust, whose first branch is just five minutes down the road. Although here the menu sees the addition of more substantial meat and fish dishes.

They also serve their food on proper plates, with real cutlery. I have no objection to using a plastic fork to shovel up the last scraps of bhel puri from a paper dish when half-cut on fancy double IPAs, but sometimes it is nice to hold a proper knife and fork (then promptly abandon them to scoop everything up with up with a basket of fluffy naan bread...).

Speaking of the beer, I had been promised good things by my Uncle, who had eaten their the week before. Although, clearly our visit had been preceded by some thirsty Loiners and sadly half the choices were scratched off the board, including the tasty-sounding First Chop Mango Pale, that ran out just as we arrived.

In the end I went with a pint of the Wild Beer Lobster Gose - a beer made with cockles and lobsters, seaweed and sea herbs, and seasoned with Cornish sea salt, saffron and star anise. As you can imagine, not a choice for everyone, although the briny, spicy undertones matched up well to the punchy food.

My Uncle's curiosity overcame him and he also ordered a bottle of coconut beer to share, spurred on by the Ewing's enthusiastic love for the tropical fruit. While it smelt unnervingly like Ambre Soliare, it was also strangely delicious; although I heard its sun protection isn't great. 

We started with baskets of poppadoms, obviously, with a tray of punchy fresh dips - tomato, mango and an appreciated raita, they haven't stinted on the spice levels here. Followed by sharing platters of tandoori mixed grill - including chicken and prawns - and fiery seekh kebabs packed with flecks of fresh green chilli and served with a zingy green mint chutney.

We also shared a plate of pani puri, little bite sized baskets of crisp dough stuffed with spicy cubes of potato and pomegranate seeds, served with a dish of fiery tamarind water to pour over, before devouring in one with as much decorum as you can muster. (Not much, based on the amount of my Aunt’s Vanish Gold I got through later that evening).

The Ewing’s sea bream was a whole fish grilled in a spice paste of lemongrass, red chilli, ginger and lime  and served with a chopped salad and more mint chutney. A decent specimen, nicely cooked to be both crisp and yielding, and at five pence under eleven quid, it was also good value.

Keema mattar, or minced lamb and peas, is a childhood favourite that my mum often used to cook from her battered copy of Madhur Jaffrey. This version was light and delicately fragranced, perhaps a little too underpowered, but served in a generous portion. I also loved the nostalgic fresh pop of peas added towards the end of the cooking time and not boiled until mealy and grey (my Mum’s peas were always perfect).

To accompany our mains we worked our way through the naan menu, from classic garlic and coriander to a great peshwari, stuffed with plenty of coconut-ty filling. I went a bit more outré with the Yorkshire cheese naan, spurred on by Mr Rayner’s words; ‘ordered because it would be rude not to in Leeds, is the sort of thing you order early here, when you have somehow managed to arrive drunk. It’s oily, melted cheese and oven-scorched bread. It’s filth.’ 

Having managed to arrive not only early, but drunk too, I can also confirm it is filth. Of the highest order; shared with these Filthy Animals. I wouldn't want it any other way.

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

Hot town, summer in the city

A hot summer in the city is one of my favourite things. Of course, like everything in life, there are caveats - being pressed into an armpit on the Northern line in rush hour, or walking around Soho on bin day have their own special olfactory charm – but, overall, there is a special excitement to the heat haze and sticky asphalt; the dead streets; and getting a frozen strawberry lemonade form the McDonald’s in Walworth Road (if they’re not cleaning the machines, again) on the way back to Stealth’s after a big night out.

Eating on occasions like these demands a laid-back approach. Sure, you can enjoy the icy blast of air-conditioning somewhere identikit, but far better to be gently sweating somewhere with the door propped open; a redundant fan in the corner, blowing the hot air about; and simple food washed down with a cooling libation or two. All of which boxes Patogh, just off the Edgware road successfully ticks.

Sitting by the window meant a cooling breeze, and a fascinating view down to the kaleidoscope of one of London's most vibrant thoroughfares, but I did feel sympathy for the guys working behind the blazing grills and charcoal oven. Especially as I suspect they were more than twelve hours in to their fast for Ramadan.

It isn't licenced, but you can bring your own alcohol. As we'd had a few poky #trainbeers on the way there, I stuck to the sparkling water while the Ewing had her favourite, doogh. A divisive (the thought gives me the dry heaves) thin yoghurt drink with added salt and mint, it proved an ideal way for her to temper the heat.

Mixed starters brought a platter featuring shairazi salad (chopped tomatoes, cucumber, onion and parsley); two tangy yoghurts, one with shallot and one with cucumber; and creamy houmous topped with a thicket of fresh herbs. 

Although it wasn't advertised, they also bought us a dish of mixed pickled veg that were very similar to the jars of 'Nanny pickle' my grandmother made. We all used to fight over the green tomatoes when I was growing up, and the Ewing and I were soon locked in a nostalgic battle for the best bits.

To scoop up our dips we also ordered the big special bread, which has got to be one of the best, and most accurately, named dishes in town. What turns up is indeed big and made of bread, and its pretty special too. Cooked in their own clay oven, it's at turns crusty and chewy and pillowy with a wonderful smoky, nutty flavour from the charred spots and the sesame seeds scattered on top.

Chelo khoresh ghaimah was a stew of split yellow peas, diced lamb and dried lime; slow cooked in a tomato sauce with 'potato cubs' and topped with crisp-like potato matchsticks. I'm not normally a big fan of a stew, especially when stewing in the heat, but here the meat was gently yielding, the sauce deep and rich and glossy, and the spiky sour edge from the citrus made it perfect for the weather.

Chelow Kebab - the Iranian national dish of steamed saffron rice topped with skewered meat - come in the choice of two meats; lamb or chicken, and two varieties; kofte and shish; or you can go wild and have a mixture of the two. I chose the lamb kofte, served with a suggestion of salad and with more saffron rice - topped with a pleasing large lump of butter. This, with a good squirt of their homemade chilli sauce, is kebab perfection. And you don't even have to be pissed. 

Fabulous, fast food, friendly service and, at thirty quid for the lot, great value anywhere - not just in this frenetic corner of town. All making Patogh a great option, come rain or shine.

I can tell you my love for you will still be strong
After the boys of summer have gone

Monday, 26 June 2017

Where's the beef?

Our recent month away in Australia and Singapore meant elevated consumption levels. Which, considering how much I normally consume, was an impressive amount of eating and drinking. In my head, I planned to return home, leaf through the thousands (literally) of photos and bang out a few blog posts before the jet lag had time to kick in. 

Of course, reality is the conjectured state of things as they actually exist, and that meant spending the days following our return on the sofa in my pants, eating cold pizza thinking about finally unpacking my suitcase (I’m almost there).

Although the blog has been on the back-burner, I do want to log the most pertinent details of the trip somehow - not wanting all those gained pounds and dropped dollars to be for nothing. And while there were plenty of highlights, which I’m hoping to compile into some sort of roundup, two meals we enjoyed - at LPs Quality Meats and Hubert, both in Sydney - stand out.

There are many parallels, not least the bovine centrepieces of both feasts, but the most significant factor proceeding each meal was what had happened the night before. More accurately, how hung-over we were. In fact, if the food hadn’t been so memorable, there may not have been a blog post at all, as all my other memories are decidedly hazy.

Our meal at LPs Quality Meats in Chippendale came the day after my brother in law, Robbie G, had taken us on the inner-west pub crawl. An all-dayer that ended hours later with us in the Coogee Bay Hotel and the Ewing’s wallet in some bar in Newtown. 

Wallet safely retrieved the following morning (thanks, Dad), we decided to burn off the excesses by walking over to Chippendale through Centennial Park. A nice idea until you consider it was nearing sunset, so cue loud dive -bombing parakeets coming to roost and a sky darkly swirling with bats. Not the best thing when you’re still feeling sketchy form a day on the high ABV IPAs.

We arrived at the trendy – think dark, loud and stripped back - smoking specialists early on a Saturday evening and were given the last two spots at the bar. Despite our parlous state, I do love a bar seat and it was a pleasure to see into the kitchen, and chat with the bar staff throughout our meal (who made the most delicious looking and TASTING cocktails, proper cocktails, that taste like they are only made of alcohol, like they should be - TE). It also made it hard to turn down a beverage and with the beers coming from the Grifter Brewery, the second stop on the previous day’s tour, it would have been rude not to.

Thick slices of Applewood smoked sea trout were served with crème fraiche, crispy deep-fried capers and dill. As Julie Andrews may have sung, some of my favourite things. For a restaurant that specialised in the meaty stuff, this was possibly my dish of the day, simple well-balanced and a joy to eat. The generous portioning also meant even the Ewing didn’t mind sharing (lets get this straight, what I don't like about sharing is when the person you're 'sharing' with eats at double the speed as you and seems to be sharing the the time it takes to eat the food not how much - that's one of my issues with 'sharing' - TE) .

A tranche of glossy duck liver pate came with olives, jalapenos, dijon mustard and thick slices of homemade dark sourdough. Light and fluffy in texture, more like a parfait, it was perfectly piqued by the pickles and the excellent smoky bread. An exemplary beginning to the meal.

When you’re feeling more than a little delicate, ordering boudin – a smoked sausage made with pig’s blood - may seem like a questionable choice but this was light and delicate and exceptionally good. More like a Spanish morcilla than our own denser black pudding, the filling was lightly spiced and studded with sweet currants, nuts and chunks of back fat. Shards of pickled celery provided a crisp and tangy counterpoint.

Any full-blooded carnivore would have felt a pang of regret passing up their other smoked meats – crispy-skinned porchetta, lamb stuffed with merguez sausage and chicken rubbed with dill and paprika, anyone?– but with the, now iconic, beef rib on the menu there was only ever going to be one choice.

Like everything else we had eaten before it, it was faultless. The spice-rubbed bark giving way to tender beef, shot through with the tell-tale pink rings of properly slow-smoked meat . Sticky, smoky, juicy, fatty - pretty soon I was like a dog with a bone, only with slightly less decorum. And, as an avowed condiment queen, I didn’t even need the chimichurri sauce and chilli sauces alongside (although I may have eaten them with a teaspoon anyway).

There were also greens alongside, to placate the Ewing. Although I'm not really sure fried brussels sprouts with chunks of ricotta salata and almonds was doing us much good overall. Tasted bloody good, though.

Pudding – obviously a given, they had even kindly offered to box up our leftover rib so we had room – was a toss-up between the light and refreshing coconut and watermelon granita and the pudding chomeur, or poor man’s pudding – a baked sponge cake drowned in smoked Canadian maple syrup and topped with ice cream. I say it was a toss-up, it wasn’t really even close. Cake wins all day long, especially with the ringing endorsements from the bar staff.

And, although the Ewing was adamant she was ‘never drinking again’, or certainly not until my niece’s christening the following afternoon, seeing a succession of old fashions being mixed weakened her resolve and she had soon ordered one to go alongside desert.

For our trip to Hubert -  a belated 40th birthday celebration for the Ewing, very kindly organised by my sister and brother-in-law - we somehow contrived to be in an even more delicate state after a Monday night/Tuesday morning merrily spent glugging Prosecco in our old friend the CBH. Well, I use the word ‘all’, loosely. The Roscoe’s were suffering, while Robbie G and the birthday girl were displaying a little more resilience.

Time Out’s restaurant of the year, Hubert is a hip subterranean hangout in Sydney’s CBD. French in influence, as I descended the stairs the dark wooden panelling reminded me a bit of going down to the Bar Americain, at old favourite Brasserie Zedel, minus the gold and marble. While it’s not quite the hot ticket it was, reservations are only available for parties of six or more, so thankfully Robbie G had managed to get there early and stake out one of the prime seats in the house; for once, the Roscoe’s weren’t relishing the idea of hanging out waiting in the bar.

We did rally ourselves for an aperitif; a selection of beers for a thirsty Rob; my sister originally requested a bloody mary but was told they don’t serve them due to the fact ‘we like to make all our juices fresh’. Why this precluded tomato juice, wasn’t quite clear, but she settled for a margarita anyway; a Campari (best hangover drink ever) and grapefruit took the edge of my lurching stomach; and a stiff martini, served in its own little bottle with the choice of an olive or a twist, helped sharpen the Ewing’s appetite.

The menu is comprised of 'sharing plates' of various sizes that involved a good five minute run through from our server, something that always makes my heart sink. While I would happily of eaten any (all) of it, I did find the whole process slightly exhausting, especially in my delicate frame of mind. I also wanted the steak tartare, while the birthday girl wanted the cote de beouf, so I had to exercise the art of compromise to avoid all ending up with gout.

A basket of crusty baguette, like the entrance, also reminded me of Zedel, although it cost six bucks here (in Piccadilly it’s free, with refills if you ask nicely) and, strangely given the silver bread basket, the butter comes served in the little paper pots you get filled with ketchup in McDonalds.

The malakov, a deep fried ball of greueyre served with slices of pickled cucumber, was as great as it sounds. Although, if you’re as greedy as me, a quarter just isn’t gonna cut it. No matter how nicely it’s sliced up by your sister.

I’m not sure whether I like snails, or just the huge amounts of garlicky butter they are normally baked with, especially when soaked up with chunks of crusty bread. Here they are served gratinated with XO sauce –  made with dried scallop, red chili pepper, dried ham, dried shrimp, garlic - a funky chinese twist that matched the sweet little (in a snail’s case, size matters and small is beautiful) molluscs just as well as the more familiar brashness of the allium.

Wine, although not from Rob's Spanish selection (kinda odd given the big French influence in the food), was decent. (Honestly, I don't have huge recall of the finer details, but i know I gamely drunk my glass. Such a trooper.)

Torn between the duck – a limited number are roasted, with a reto orange sauce everyday – and the steak, we almost ended up with both when a tiny waitress appeared with a huge platter of the former and nearly unceremoniously dropped it over the Ewing’s head. Thankfully disaster was averted by a passing colleague, and soon we were united with our rightful main, the Rangers Valley rib eye served with roasted garlic and sauce choron.

To my shame, I could only manage two slices; but I don’t think the others were complaining that much. Although I was complaining about the amount of roasted garlic the Ewing had eaten. For days after. Also, sauce choron, a bernaise with tomato, may even be better than the original. And that is high praise indeed.

What goes better with fried meat in a rich sauce than fried potatoes in a rich sauce. pommes anna, wafer thin layers of crispy potatoes upended in a puddle of beurre blanc, bought to mind the lauded confit potatoes at the Quality Chop House that still flood my Instagram feed in all there jagged golden glory, but with an added pool of buttery sauce to soak into the crispy edges.

There was also a kimchi gratin, the spicy, fermented Korean cabbage baked with a topping of buttery breadcumbs that made a surprisingly punchy foil for the richness of the meat and spuds.

The Vacherin, a frozen bombe of sauternes ice cream with a honeycomb, lemon and mandarin jelly centre, appeared covered in piped meringue, giving it the appearance of a frilly doll that guard the spare loo roll that my Nan still proudly displays in her bathroom. I'm going to have to take Rob and the Ewing's word this was good, as they are the only ones who tried it. But it certainly didn't hang about for long.

Unusually, the melon en surprise was the dish I was most excited to try, despite my love hate relationship with the fruit. A hollowed out Santa Claus melon, topped with a layer of young coconut sorbet, arrived containing a 'surprise' of finger lime, sorrel jelly and some other bits of deliciously refreshing shizzle, just what the doctor ordered. (He probably would have ordered an early night and a week off the sauce, but hey).

So, two wonderful; meals, and it wasn’t just the beefy centrepieces linked them. There was also the charming surroundings and the charming staff, expertly mixed drinks and excellent food. And of course, the sparkling company, even if we had lost our fizz a little. (Thanks Emily and Rob  - TE xxx)