Monday, 26 January 2015

Rams, Kenton

Dear old Grandad’s taken a tumble and as a consequence has been banged up at the NHS’s pleasure for the last few weeks. While it’s unlikely many of us would ever choose to be in hospital, the care he’s been receiving - at Northwick Park, the auspicious site of my own birth, and latterly Central Middlesex - has been first rate and even the (notorious) catering has had the thumbs up. If the Ewing’s ever admitted she’s hoping it will be on a Thursday, for corned beef and pickle sandwiches followed by jerk chicken and sponge pudding. 

The frequent dashes made up the Western Avenue have meant things have been a bit slack on the domestic front, so luckily there are plenty of decent choices for dinner nearby when visiting hours are over.

Fortuitously Northwick Park is a stone’s throw from Kenton, the home of Ram’s Pure Vegetarian, and somewhere I’ve wanted to visit for a while. While most things with veggie in the title may scream of mung beans and tofu, here you can be assured of plenty of deep frying, liberal helpings of cheese and ghee, and cold beers to wash it all down with.

Speaking of the beer, Kingfisher is £2.00 a bottle, and only £3.80 for a 660ml bomber. So I had two. The Ewing enjoyed a cup of sweet, spicy chai.

The menu is bewilderingly large and is split into many different sections reflecting various different types of Indian cuisine. These include Surti Khajana (a state in Gujarat), Mumbai Chatpata (classic street food such as idli and dosa)  - Panjabi dishes - South Indian Dishes and Indian Mirch (an Guajarati word meaning pepper or chilli) Masala dishes - This is then subdivided into starters and mains, with a few extra accompaniments, rice and daal dishes and Hindustani Breads thrown in for good measure.

To kick things off we had a plate of Pani Puri, the crisp shells being served with a lurid, spiced potato and chickpea mixture and a thin tamarind chutney. Preparing these is almost as much fun as eating them. Crack open the top of the shell -rather like a boiled egg - stuff with the potato mixture, top with a spoonful of tamarind liquid and down in one before it all disintergrates. A great start.

Of course, we were obliged to order a dosa. This time the Mysore version, the crisp, lacy crepe being stuffed with spicy garlic and chilli masala paste, before being folded and served with a decent vegetable sambal and an unmemorable coconut chutney (well I liked it - TE).

Next came a plate of Banana Methi Bhajiya - banana and fenugreek pakoras served with two different chutneys. These were the Ewing’s favourite dish of the day, the sweet, slightly spongy fried nuggets pairing well with the grassiness (a bit too 'compost' like for my tastes) of the green coriander chutney and the tang of the red tomato.

I have recently been flicking back through Simon Hopkinson’s latest book, Cook, and have been tempted by the rather 70’s simplicity of a recipe for a tomato curry, with the whole fruit simmered in a delicately spiced sauce; this craving lead to me choosing the, curious sounding, Tomato Sev.

While I normally associate tomato in a curry with the brackish, metallic and smoky flavours of Northern India and Pakistan, this was clean, light and tangy with a searing heat from a good thwack of fresh chilli. I expected the sev (chickpea noodles) to have been sprinkled on top of the finished dish, but they has been simmered into the curry, giving it a pleasing, if slightly odd, texture and a nutty back note.

The Vengan na Ravaiya, a peanut and gram flour stuffed aubergine that's a a Surti specialty, was equally fiery. The slippery, finger sized, baby baingan being simmered in a rich, oily tomato and onion sauce that reminded me of one of my favourite curries from Tayyabs (minus the lentils).

Our final main, from the Punjab, was the the Ewing’s favourite ‘cheesy peas’. This version of muttar paneer was rich and soporific while still showcasing the delicate sweetness of the legumes. The paneer, always a favourite, was pleasingly bouncy and with a smoky edge from a tumble in the hot kahari before being added to the sauce.

From the Hindustani breads section shared a Puran Poli, a Guajarati bread usually eaten during festivals and times of celebration and a speciality of the restaurant. The standard puri is stuffed with jaggery (palm sugar) and daal before being fried in ghee. Unsurprisingly, it was exceptionally good, if very rich, the sweet, butteriness providing a foil for the heat and astringency of the vegetable curries.

Tempted as we were by the homemade pistachio kulfi and the butter and sugar laden pastries and sweetmeats that sold from their adjoining sweet shop, dessert was far more restrained and refreshing, coming in the form of fresh mango and blueberries bought from the Lebanese grocers a little further up the road. And whilst the fruit might not have counteracted all our previous dinnertime transgressions, hopefully it will go some way towards keeping us out of the inpatients.

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Cupcakes, Carciofi Fritti and Capitalism

As has been established in the previous post, my way of dealing with any lingering New Year malaise is not the gym and Dry January, but more carb-loading and pub crawls. In a concession to the fact we had been slowly vegetating in Elephant and Castle, with just a box set of Getting On, take away noodles and modular origami for company, Stealth and the Ewing acceded to my demands to leave the flat and even allowed me to choose wherever I wanted to go for lunch.

What I wanted was pizza, and while the local Italian gaff in Walworth was closed - thwarting me for the second time and dashing my hopes for an Americana topped with homemade chips and sausage – Pizza Pilgrims (fairly) new second branch stepped in to satiate my need (with the potential for cupcakes from the recently opened Crumbs and Doilies next door proving somewhat of an added bonus).

After a sightseeing adventure on the number 12 bus - over Westminster Bridge, past the Houses of Parliament and around Trafalgar Square – followed by a dice with death on Regent Street we eventually reached our final destination of Carnaby’s new Kingly court complex, ’ a three story al-fresco food and dining destination in the heart of London's West End’.

This branch of PP is also a Friggitoria alongside a pizzeria, an exotic (and faintly erotic) sounding way of saying that they deep fry things, too. These things include carciofi fritti (fried artichokes) which were hot and crisp but a little underpowered in the seasoning department and some nice little arancini rosso, the breadcrumb covered tomatoey rice cradling a molten smoked mozzarella core.

Greedy as we are, we sadly had to miss out on trying the pizza fritta, which, as the name suggests are ‘pizza fritters’ featuring a deep fried calzone, stuffed with a variety of filling – and the deep fried Italian mac’n’cheese with Parmesan, beef ragu & buffalo mozzarella (you didn't tell me that was on the menu, I would have had it - TE). A mini tragedy, but there’s always next time and I would like to try and see in 2016 without dangerously high cholesterol levels.

The main draw, of course, is the pizzas, made in the Neapolitan style. These tend towards the ‘soupy’ side in the middle (which the Ewing doesn’t rate) with beautifully chewy, puffy and charred crusts (which Stealth does). I think they make pretty great pie, although the floppy base (fired the traditional way for 30-60 seconds at fearsome temperatures) means they are a proper knife and fork job.

Stealth, who can be seen above modelling her dinner, chose a pizza topped with N'duja, the fiery Calabrian salami. While I used the advantage of eating pie with the Ewing to create a red/white hybrid Frankenpizza. This time we shared a Smoked Neapolitan; a Margarita with smoked anchovies, capers, black olives & oregano, and the day's special pie, La Mimosa; a porchetta, fior di latte, sweetcorn, Parmesan, double cream and basil pizza bianca. Both were good, but the La Mimosa just shaded it, sweetcorn haters be damned.

As always, I was too full to contemplate the Nutella and ricotta stuffed pizza ring (one day...) but the meal was nicely rounded off with shots of Sohocello; a Pizza Pilgrim and Chase Distillery collaboration that sees potato spirit distilled by the latter being infused with Amalfi lemons. I wouldn't like to say if it was as good as my beloved Ewing's clemencello (made at Christmas with clementines), but it is rather nice. 

Pizza Pilgrims on Urbanspoon

As promised, we called into the Crumbs and Doilies new Soho store after lunch to stock up on some cupcakey goodness. Alongside regular cupcakes they also have mini cakes in all the regular flavours alongside a large cake of the day, available by the slice (see below), and a regularly changing flapjack/brownie/cookie type offering. All goodies are baked upstairs on the premises and there's also coffee from Grind, teas by Suki Tea and sodas from All Good. Don't listen to anyone who tells you cupcakes are over without trying one of these first.

There then followed crisps and stout, eaten in the English fashion with the bags split and laid in the middle for sharing – followed by more beer and discussions over the difference between lightly salted and ready salted (and how many disgruntled customers it had taken for the barman to think it necessary to state multiple times they were LIGHTLY SALTED - TE) and the evil/genius of capitalism – a topic that it is wiser left after several pints of Brewdog’s, very tasty, Red A.M Ale (surely a socialist drink, judging by the colour).

I also still had the delights of my Crumbs and Doilies haul – featuring another red offering, perfect for the Marx in me - for when I got home. Alongside the doorstep of Red Velvet cake – enormous in both size and sugar content sweet and not for sharing (sorry, the Ewing) and there were also a salted caramel pretzel number, a banoffee and, my favourite, a cookies and cream cupcake studded with Oreos.

When the (terribly middle-class) Borough sourdough had all been eaten, as was famously (not) said by Marie-Antoinette: Qu'ils mangent de la brioche.

Monday, 12 January 2015

January Blues

For last year's words belong to last year's language
And next year's words await another voice.
― T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets

There’s something relentlessly dull about January. All the on the wagon hashtags and pictures of kale smoothies and running shoes that flood social media. As well as the physical interventions, usually staged after a solid month of eating Quality Street and mainlining Baileys in front of the Christmas tree, I also find there’s a horrible mental malaise to overcome too. While it’s the perfect opportunity to look forward to the future, as you get older it seems harder to see past the past.

In an attempt to conquer this malaise, and in sheer defiance of abstinence I started 2015 with a healthy dose of alcohol, salt and saturated fat in the form of the limited edition return of the McRib, washed down with a bottle of Lanson that had been overlooked at New Year. A promising start, but I still needed a little fillip to perk up what had dawned as a particularly grim and rainy Saturday morning, even the view of the Shard had disappeared from Stealth’s balcony. This little piggy was going to Borough Market (with a reluctant Ewing trailing behind).

After a row about finding the bus stop, then a row at the bus stop and another disagreement after alighting from the bus, the restoration of matrimonial bliss (Stealth had wisely stayed at home napping) demanded a doughnut. Not just any doughnuts but those baked at the Bread Ahead Bakery - founded by Matt Jones of Flour Power and Justin Gellately formerly of St John fame. The very doughy orbs that spurt their custard and jam obscenely over my Twitter feed every weekend.

It seems that the apprentice has indeed surpassed the master as the doughnuts we tried – mine the honeycomb topped and salted caramel custard-stuffed and the Ewing’s cacao nib-dusted chocolate velvet – were both bigger and fluffier than the recent St John incarnations I’ve eaten. While I still appreciate the simplicity of the originals, there is something pretty special about these pretenders to London's doughnut throne

Passing time with a couple of these is probably the most fun you can have with your clothes on a Saturday morning, although with your clothes off it may be even better (watch out, though, for any errant sugar in the cracks). Mercifully for everybody else we stayed fully clothed, although with the thick fog still descending I’m not sure anyone would have noticed either way.

Next it was time to placate the Ewing, and what better way than with a bag of Artisan Du Chocolat's mis-shapes washed down with a Notes latte (see my Belgrave, Leeds post for my love-in with their lamingtons). I've got a soft spot for ADC's chocolates, especially the original salted caramels and the iridescent pistachio paste pearls, and these grab bags of the poor old rejects that didn't quite make the cut are a real bargain. 

Because the Ewing had both forgotten her hat and gloves and was nursing the hangover from a bad ankle sprain from before Christmas (as well as the vestiges of a hangover of the more traditional kind), I thought it infinitely wise to leave the plethora of warm eating places with plenty of seating around Borough and make her traverse the foggy streets of Bermondsey to Jose, Jose Pizarro’s bijou tapas and sherry place.

In a benevolent stroke of luck a couple of stools at the bar opened almost as we arrived and soon we were drinking cold glasses of Estrella Damm accompanied by a plate of hand carved pig - and not just any pig, but ‘the most excellent Maldonado Ibérico bellota pig’. It was lovely, of course, but the heathen in me still has a lot of love for the leg of cured ham from Lidl that I spend all Christmas surreptitiously standing by the fridge scoffing.

Alongside we enjoyed some punchy bocerones , with a gum tingling dose of vinegar, an ethereal spinach tortilla that just missed oozing in the middle and some of the finest, paprika dusted, crisp calamari fresh from the fryer. A crust or two of bread, a perfect sop for some of the fishy juices, was sadly absent, but they do serve very good pam amb tomate if you’re in the need of a few carbs.

Jose isn’t especially cheap - the price of small plate eating can sky rocket swiftly, especially if you’re making use of their Spanish wine and sherry list - but as I sat there on a leaden January afternoon, holding court with my lovely and long suffering wife with a plate of pig and glass of beer at my side, I couldn’t have felt more satisfied.

José on Urbanspoon

These little piggies soon went back to market, this time to fetch an indoor picnic for Stealth (who, in a fortuitous stroke of luck had meanwhile ordered a Japanese takeaway, meaning more for us to take back and snaffle later).

From the almost overwhelming section of cheese and charcuterie we chose a heady mixture of 15 month aged Comte, a hunk of Altesse des Vosges - a washed cheese, somewhere between a Reblochon and a Munster from the Lorraine -and a very nice donkey salami (well, it was just after Christmas) that the Ewing refused to eat. There was also a huge veg box, -with beefsteak tomatoes, frisee, peppers and fennel – picked up for two quid and a giant avocado for a pound.

Top prize went to the loaf of the Borough White from the Flour Station. Anyone who thinks that four quid is too much for flour and water needs to try some of this. A few slices, with its smoky, burnished crust and a wonderfully chewy, light crumb, slathered with butter and the stinky, sticky Altesse des Voges and eaten while tucked up in bed made the perfect welcome back home to our empty house after all the festive excitement. A very happy New Year indeed.