Tuesday, 26 January 2016

A Brutalist birthday and some brunch

So, the blog is five. In previous years this auspicious date has slipped by rather quietly - apart from the first anniversary, when there was some jazzy birthday cake ice cream, stuck with a solitary candle - but this year I wanted to mark the passing of time with a new challenge. It had to be cheap (more on that in a later blog), involve adventure, and, most importantly, keep my interest piqued while not driving the Ewing insane for a whole twelve months (that would be good - TE).

So I thought of some combinations of my favourite things, ruled most of them out for being highly impractical (and possibly illegal) and finally settled upon my love of brutalism, The Big Smoke and maps; three things that have been cunningly combined together by Blue Crow Media in their brutalsit map of London.

 Fifty-two weeks to see the fifty-four  landmarks listed (plus possibly a few bonus balls found outside the Big Smoke) to learn a few new things, see some hitherto unexplored corners of the capital and shake a few foundations. Of course not literally, given the construction of some of these behemoths.

Brutalism, deriving from the French for 'raw concrete', is an architectural movement that rose from the ruins, literally, of post-war Europe. Renowned for its uncompromising ruggedness that often puts form above function, it's characterised by the austere expanses of concrete its name suggests, with a focus on practicality that will divide a dinner party at its mere mention. 

Needless to say, it floats my boat, although clearly, like all things, it has it's flaws, and not all to do with buildings themselves. Although I'm sure there will be time to pontificate on the finer points during the coming months. I didn't study art and architecture at uni for nothing (err, well I did, but that's another story).

I started the challenge gently with the rather modest Hendon Hall Court. Designed by Owen Luder - whose partnership was behind the iconic Trinity Car Park in Gateshead and Portmouth's Tricorn Centre; both now both sadly (or happily, depending on your stance) reduced to rubble - this small block of private flats is a rather more modest proposition.

Built between 1961 - 1966, its repetitive and angular geometry, most striking at either end of the block, marks it out as a brutalist build, albeit one that blends nicely into this leafy suburb. White paint softens the bleakness of the concrete - although an old photo I found on Flickr (in black and white making it hard to tell) seems to show bare concrete and roughcast, suggesting this wasn't always the case.

Although we didn't go inside, The Ewing had a quick swizz  around the entrance and through the front doors, where plinths of concrete impressively rise up from the outside staircase and seamlessly pass through panes of glass into the hallway.

Google also throws up a nice bit of property porn, showing some deceptively spacious, if slightly oddly configured flats. If you're interested, a three bedroom penthouse is currently going for £690,000 smackers, although it does boast a 30ft reception room that leads on to a large roof terrace. Two beds start at £400,000, which considering the careering London property market doesn't seem all that unreasonable.

Tramping around outside Barnet in the freezing depths of winter, all while attempting to look surreptitious, is hungry work. As it was Sunday, we decided dim sum was in order and Wing Tai, part of the pagoda-like complex that includes the Wing Yip supermarket and is impossible to miss from the Edgware Road, was just a few minutes drive away.

It's a big space but there was already a waiting list a little after twelve. and plenty of Chinese families, which is always a good thing. Or maybe not when they gave us the the dim sum menu to fill in, along with the little Argos biro, and the only discernible thing to a non-chinese speaker was the cost...

Thankfully they also have a laminated pictorial menu and we had soon made our choice of seven dishes; I had pointed out that eight was an auspicious number, but the Ewing had also pointed out most of our choices were deep fried in some form and if we were going to spend the next year traipsing around the city, we could probably do without the extra ballast. 

Food was decent, if lacking the finesse of some of the better joints; likely as some of it comes frozen from the supermarket next door. There are some unusual choices, though, including prawn, beef and crunchy water chestnut dumplings that we tried, and a pork and peanut number, that we didn't.

Doughnut cheung fun were, as always, fun; with a good contrast between the slimy rice dough outside and the puffy fried dough within. While the fried beancurd rolls, despite having the unfortunate appearance of a roadside casualty, were perfectly tasty.

We also had pork buns, The Ewing's favourite, that were small but perfectly fomed; good spicy thai-style baby octopus; and glutinous rice, wrapped in lotus leaves and studded with dried mushrooms, shrimp and sausage. To finish were deep fried custard buns, which for my money beat most doughnuts with a much better filling to dough ratio and a lovely crisp caramel carapace. 

At fifteen pounds a head, all in and including chinese tea and tip (although be aware they ask for a separate gratuity if you pay by card) it's a decent shout if you don't want to schlep into central London, and there's always the advantage of visiting the adjacent supermarket after to stock up on chili sauce and strange snacks.

All in all it ended up being a day of discovering new things; not only did I start my architectural tour and find about the Luder school - at least beyond Get Carter and the Catford shopping centre - I also found out what the plural of uterus was. Luckily for the Ewing, this was one experience I wasn't keen to explore further. 

Wing Tai Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Monday, 18 January 2016

Chick 'n Sours, somewhere out East....

Born in the Badlands of Brent and raised in the rolling Chilterns, I've always been, as Neil sang, a West End Girl. So when Carl Clarke - of Disco Bistro fame - opened a chicken shop on the Kingsland Road it pitted my love of fried poultry with my inherent dislike for convoluted trips across London with TFL.

For a while I held out, but after enduring a Twitter feed full of sticky wings and Weetabix soft serve, coupled with the plaintive pleas from The Ewing (who rates fried chicken on a par with me and only just behind chocolate and the cat), we roped in Stealth and Regina, an East End Girl, for brunch.

The name suggests, they've got a keen eye for the cocktails too, with the specialty being sour-style libations served in half pint pots. I stuck with the house sour, which featured gin; lemon; raspberry and chilli vinegar; and freeze dried raspberry, while the rest of the table honed in on the regularly changing guest list with the stand out being a a bourbon based mango and balsamic number.

The Szechuan aubergine - cubed and tempura battered before being tossed in a soy and miso glaze - was about the best thing you could do to an eggplant. So good we ordered two portions, and not just because The Ewing has vowed never to split food with Stealth after the unfortunate 'sharing' platter incident at the Doghouse in Kennington before I even started writing this blog.

We also shared a side of watermelon with peanuts and coriander and chilli and fish sauce; all things that probably shouldn't work when mixed together with chunks of fruit, but strangely did.

I had been eagerly waiting to try the House Fry drumstick and thigh, served with 'seaweed crack' and more chunks of pickled watermelon. After vicariously cyber-consuming this countless times on social media, I only hoped the reality could live up to my fowl-based fantasies. Thankfully it was even tastier; knocking Colonel Sanders grizzled offerings into a cocked bargain bucket.

A crisp shell of seasoned batter gave way to chicken pieces I would have described as being on steroids (both because of their size and my predilection for lazy cliches), if I didn't already know were from free range organic birds raised on Pilton Grange in Yorkshire. And whilst the seaweed seasoning had the appearance of the contents of an errant ashtray it certainly deserved its class A moniker, being a full on umami-bomb. 

The Guest Fry on this visit was spicy satay; a House Fry drumstick and thigh smothered in a creamy peanut sauce, crunchy red onion and a thatch of coriander and thai basil. A serious plate of food which, again, managed to tame all the big bold flavours into a harmonious whole.

Stealth isn't a fan of a bone - not in her chicken, anyway (umm...you know how she recoils at erotic puns - TE) - but thankfully the brunch bun was there to satiate her every need. A behemoth of fried thigh, avocado, fried egg, bacon, chilli slaw, hot sauce and gochujang mayonnaise, clamped in a shiny brioche bun that elicited gasps both when it arrived at the table and then as Stealth manfully struggled to finish it. 

Thumbs up, too for the packet of Huggies baby wipes that arrived with it and were much needed. I probably should have used one myself, being as the above photo is rendered in a soft glow focus thanks to the greasy fingers on my phone camera lens.

Yes, fried chicken restaurants in the Capital might be as ubiquitous as conceded Spurs goals, but far more fun. And with excellent cocktails, superlative poultry and a soft serve menu I must return to sample (hopefully before the matcha, banana and sesame flavour is replaced) it's worth braving the 243 to Wood Green for.

Chick 'n Sours Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Friday, 8 January 2016

Zaap Thai, Leeds

However hard you try to escape it, this time of year feels pretty sad. It’s cold and grim outside and everyone’s given up the booze and is on some weird fad diet which means the fridge at work is currently full of neon green drinks, yoghurt and mackerel fillets in contrast to the pre-Christmas platters of sausage rolls and mince pies.

Short of a fortnight on the beach in Mexico, I find the best way to counteract the gloom is with some spice. A panacea for the palate, deadened this year not only by the usual festive onslaught of chocolate and cream, but also a nasty cold, kindly bestowed upon me by my loving niece the Gingerbread.

Thankfully salvation was at hand in the form of Zaap Thai, a ‘street food’ restaurant in the Grand Arcade, Leeds, that's the brasher younger brother to the perennially popular Sukothai mini-chain.

Inside they've gone full-throttle with the garish Bangkok street market theme, with walls adorned with everything from kick boxing shorts to boxes of soap powder to the crowning glory of a pair of remodelled tuk tuks that you can sit in to eat your lunch. The ersatz effect shouldn't work, but it does, in an endearingly ramshackle way.

As our lunch stop was breaking up a cross-town pub crawl - and I had already promised my Aunt, whom we were staying with, that we would return in a respectable state for dinner - we eschewed booze in favour of a soft drink menu that included thai green bubble tea, chrysanthemum tea and roselle juice (no, me neither).

The Ewing's thai iced coffee hit the spot, being sweet and strong and served long in a dimpled pint pot with plenty of ice. My bonkers sounding and equally bonkers looking, butterfly pea juice with soda and lemon looked like a fancy cocktail and tasted like fancy Ribena.

We started with the Ewing's favourite, the mighty prawn cracker. Although these were the more resilient, darker kind (a better shrimpy flavour but none of that Skip-like ‘fizzle’ on the tongue) as opposed to the paler Chinese variety. No matter, a basket of warm deep fried things served with chilli jam is never going to last long in our company.

First up of our sharing plates was the Nam Tok Kor Moo, or grilled pork neck served with Isaan salad. As much as I love green stuff, a salad normally suggests the bland and the boring, suitable for dieters or the infirm. In contrast the best Thai salads are a vicious assault on the senses; an invigorating mix of fresh and fearsome.

This was no exception; a crunchy bed of raw red onion, iceberg lettuce and fresh herbs topped with strips of grilled pork neck, tossed in a pungent ground rice and fish sauce-based dressing made the perfect combination of salty, stinky, sour and spicy. And it was hot. In fact thanks to the ramped-up chilli quotient - or perhaps in homage to the dishes translated name, 'grilled pork waterfall' - tears began to gently roll from my eyes as I ate it.

No matter as we had ordered another salad, the classic Som Tum Thai which, despite having a menacing red squiggle signifying 'hot' next to it on the menu, I felt confident would have a cooling and calming effect on my throbbing tongue....

Needless to say this was, if anything, even hotter; a sinus-clearing mix of fresh green papaya, ground shrimp, cherry tomatoes and peanuts liberally strewn with both dried birds eye chilli and strips of fresh red chilli with well balanced flavours that are so often missing in our wan approximation of foreign fare.

The best bit of the experience, or certainly the most amusing, came thanks to our requested addition of pou, or raw crab; strange crunchy lumps that I quickly put to one side but the Ewing persevered trying to eat. Unsure whether to bite through it whole, like a soft shell crab, or painstakingly strip the jelly-like flesh from the carapace, she called the waitress over, seemingly oblivious to the chilli-induced tears causing a cascade of mascara down her cheeks.

While trying not to show alarm at the two sweating, sobbing spectacles in front of her, the waitress diplomatically asked if this was the first time we had tried it, while pointing out the crab was there for flavour and should be 'sucked and then discarded' (and you must try them, they are most delicious - TE) in a friendly yet amused air. I like to think I suffer these indignities so you don't have to.

Our final dish, a mussel pancake, was mercifully chilli free, but made up for it by arriving at the table in a skillet slightly hotter than the surface of the sun. Initially I was a little dubious of the thought of lumps of hot mollusc suspended in an eggy batter, but this was another fab plate; huge amounts of super fresh seafood in a crisp and well-seasoned fritter, studded with spring onion and scattered with fresh herbs.

Zaap wasn’t just a pleasant surprise, the food we ate blew me away; literally and figuratively. Yes, the menu’s peppered with plenty of anodyne crowd-pleasers - although there’s nothing wrong with that (definitely not - TE) - and the decor isn’t going to do it for everyone (it did it for me- TE), but I loved the fact we could sit amongst the neon bustle, sipping luminous drinks and giving our jaded taste buds a proper working over, for less than fifteen pounds a head.

While that might not quite be Bangkok prices, and there are (mercifully) no Mekong whisky buckets to wash it all down, being in South Yorkshire and not South Easts Asia, we could stroll down to the newly opened Headrow House after lunch to calm our tongues with a beverage. And not just any beverage, but an unpasteurised Czech lager straight from the tank, freshly opened the day before our visit. Cold beer and spicy food; I had tears in my eyes for all the right reasons.

Zaap Thai Street Food Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato