Thursday, 31 March 2016

A Tale of two kebabs

If we had been playing the 'things that you haven't done that everyone else has' game then The Ewing's drunken confession, as we queued outside Weymouth's Surfside Diner in the early hours of the morning last September, that she had never eaten a kebab might have won her the prize.

While she might have nabbed a few congealed strands of doner meat covered in burger sauce from my mixed special I still considered her kebab maidenhood firmly intact, and where better to pop her pickled chilli than L'As du Fallafel in the Marais, centre of Paris' buzzing Jewish Quarter.

Excitingly they offered Israeli beer, although sadly Maccabee All Malt turned out to be rather like the naughties band bearing part of its name - rather flat and too sweet. I kept my jaded palate entertained before lunch arrived by eating their salty, smoky homemade harissa paste by the teaspoon.

On the face of it, falafel have an unfortunate worthiness about them. They’re made from chickpeas for a start, surely the least inspiring of peas; they contain vaguely healthy looking green bits; and, to top it all, are naturally gluten free and suitable for vegans. Superfood or just super boring?

Thankfully, here they are just super delicious; served crisp and greaseless from the fryer, the steaming morsels gently perfume the air with the sweet garlic and cumin as you break each fluffy ball open. While it’s debatable how healthy anything deep fried in oil can really be, the finished nuggets still have enough worthiness about them to make them feel like they are doing you some good. Doused in harissa and washed down with beer perhaps less so.

My exotic sounding 'cocktail of mixed meats', a combination of grilled chicken, turkey, chicken liver and lamb, was certainly a majestic mix. Particularly interesting was the chicken liver; I’m not sure I’d want a whole plate of it but the soft, offally nuggets made a nice contrast to the smoky chunks of meat. 

And while the polystyrene plate and plastic cutlery gave it the requisite air of being two in the morning outside the kebab van, hoping you’ve still got enough cash for the taxi, here the food was far better and there were no fists flying or associated gutter-side dramas...

Buoyed by a successful first sampling of mystery meat, we switched up our surroundings for our second kebab with a visit to Moroccan stalwart, Chez Omar. Also found in the Marais, this veritable institution has kept celebrities in couscous and roast lamb (lauded as the best in town by David Lebovitz) for years. And while its glory days may be long gone, still expect to see queues out the door at peak times.

Couscous often gets a bad rap, but that’s little wonder when most people’s experience is something stodgy and bland, straight out of a packet with Ainsley Harriot’s face on it. The real stuff is made from hand rolled pasta that is steamed, not soaked, three times using a couscoussier, or double chambered cooking pot. A lot of effort for something you can prepare at home by boiling the kettle, even if it does taste of sadness and dried herbs (and Ainsley has a lovely smile - TE).

I have to say, I was dubious it would all be worth the effort. But, in one of those very rare (ok, pretty much daily) occasions, I was happy to be proved wrong. Instead of the familiar close-textured gloop, this was buttery and ethereal, and the grains stayed fluffy and separate even when mixed with the juices of the accompanying chickpea and vegetable stew.

Alongside were skewers of good grilled lamb and even better merguez sausages; spicy sticks of juicy minced mutton flavoured liberally with cumin, coriander and chili pepper. They also provided their house harissa, smokier and less salty than L'As du Fallafel but with a pleasingly punchy afterburn.

The jury's still out on the Algerian wine, although you can see we didn't leave much evidence. Better was desert; a giant tray of brightly coloured sweetmeats that are left tableside with a pair of gold-plated tongs for you to PYO, a dangerous prospect with the Ewing around. 

Thankfully the sheer amount of sugar crammed into each morsel makes it hard to eat more than one, although I’m pretty sure my wife would have grabbed another luminous chunk of rosewater-perfumed wobbly loukum given half a chance. To drink try a glass of fresh mint tea, a reviving panacea after the sticky sweetness.

And, in case you were wondering, the Ewing was a fan. In fact, shawarma queue outside the Hello Boss van every Friday night for her mixed meat and cheesy chips (wishful thinking, but I had to get a terrible meat-based pun in somehow).

Wednesday, 23 March 2016

Bites: Cask and Bricks

The fourth stop on the brutal tour manages to mix two of my favourite things; Modernist architecture and the pub. Quite literally in this case, as the pub has actually been built into the Lillington Gardens Estate in Pimlico.

The corner spot is currently occupied by craft beer champions the Cask Pub Co, although previously it was an old school boozer called the Pimlico Tram. While some may be sad that the old guard are being replaced by the new wave with their big hops and bigger beards, judging that we recently walked for a good half an hour from Primrose Hill to the Alexandra and Ainwsorth Estate in Camden and didn't pass a single pub on the way, they may feel lucky to still have a licenced establishment at all.

But before we get down to the drinking, first a bit about the architecture. What is immediately apparent, in stark opposition to the previous buildings on the tour, is the lack of concrete. The estate, built in three stages between 1964-1972, is dominated by neat rows of red brick quite unlike the stark swathes of grey that I have seen before. In fact, I'm not quite sure what categorises this as Brutalist rather than Modernist, but you can read some more informed stuff about the estate here.

Seen here in the distance and matching the brick found across the estate is St James the Less, an Anglican church built in 1858–61 by George Edmund Street in the Gothic Revival style. While Lillington Gardens is Grade II listed, this goes one better being Grade I and described by Pevsner as "one of the finest Gothic Revival churches anywhere".

While St James is worth a nose around, my beliefs are firmly beer-based and Cask Beer and Kitchen is a fine place for an afternoon's worship. There's a daily changing menu of cask and keg beers, a large selection of bottle and cans - including many Trans-Atlantic and hard to get hold of, a wet dream for a hop head like me - and a decent selection of wine and spirits for the non believers. Truly an all-inclusive church.

They also offer a tempting third off beers to takeaway - even if my last take out purchase, a bottle of Evil Twin's Ashtray Heart, ended up smashed on the pavements of Stockwell in the early hours of the morning. But that's another story....

Beers I've enjoyed recently here include the failsafe Thornbridge 'Chiron' American pale ale; Siren's 'Dippy and The Equinox' douple IPA, and a lovely half of Pressure Drop 'Street Porter' London porter. I also managed to grab their last can of Beavertown's Skull King last summer; which gave me a frisson of excitement that only a beer bore geek will understand - the cask Bone King I tried at their sister pub, Craft Beer and Co, may be one of the best beers I've ever drunk. Like Um Bongo on steroids.

Although I stuck to peanuts on my most recent visit, they also offer food from Forty Burgers and back in the summer I visited for dinner with Stealth. Then I tried the Heat Burger - a beef patty, topped with blue cheese and iceberg lettuce and double dipped in buffalo hot sauce. While they proudly advertise their meat as being 'a rare and unique blend of 67%, forty day aged rib and 33%, thirty day aged rump', the magma like flow of sauce cascading everywhere meant the predominate taste was vinegar and chilli.

Stealth also had the Heat burger, this time with a chicken patty replacing the beef, and thoroughly enjoyed it. But she's also destroyed her palate with a diet of scalding black coffee and Menthol Vogues, so make of that what you will (Stealth has no palate to destroy). We both agreed the chips were great, though.

Overall, surfeit of chilli sauce excepted, I think this might be one of my favourite London pubs. Inside may lack the charm of the exterior, but the beer's good, the staff are friendly and it's especially nice on a weekday afternoon, when you get the whole place to yourself and you can sit drinking bitter (cask fans, as the name suggests, are not forgotten) and reading Orwell. 

If you want a fag, as George would have done, you'll of course have to go outside now - but at least there's some nice buildings to look at while you're out there, and their hanging baskets look great all year round.

Beer, burgers, bricks and my love for alliteration. Cask is giving it with both barrels.

Tuesday, 15 March 2016

Bites: Famy go to McDos

There's something quite fascinating about a foreign McDonalds. I walk past two branches, twice, almost everyday and I can't tell you the last time I went in, but give me a McLobster roll, or a Finnish Big Mac in a rye bun, or a Japanese Halloween cheeseburger complete with black bun, and it makes me strangely McExcited. At the heart of it I suppose it's all about being the same but different. The Golden Arches are familiar, but all the strange items on the menu seem weirdly exotic. 

Fortuitously for a global junk food junkie (less so for her long-suffering wife), Twitter reported on a timely story the week before our recent trip to Paris. The Champs-Élysées branch of McDonalds, currently the most profitable in the world, had just been reopened after a refurbishment. What could be more romantic than a quick dinner à deux looking out onto the City of Love's most famous boulevard....

...clearly lots of things, but thankfully the Ewing does have a soft spot for a cheeseburger (never the double, though) and a chocolate milkshake, so soon agreed to accompany me. Who said romance was dead.

As it turned out, getting the wife to agree was the least of my problems. You may have noticed, the title of this blog is a homage to one of my favourite films (yes, really) Harold and Kumar go to White Castle. Featuring the titular pair of stoners who try and battle adversity to get their miniature cheeseburger fix. And this is pretty much how I felt after deciding to walk from from the Pompidou Centre to the Champs-Élysées for my dinner.

Yes, its only about five kilometres as the crow flies, but when you're hungry and have been on your feet all day and it's starting to get dark and you keep getting lost - not to mention the views en route that make the perfect photo opportunities, including one above that almost entirely eclipses the Ewing, but still make me laugh a lot - it takes longer. Much, much, much longer. Still not many pre-prandial strolls take you through the beautiful Tuileries Garden, along the banks of the Seine and past the Eiffel Tower.

While our (eventual) arrival wasn't quite as dramatic as Harold and Kumar sweeping down to White Castle on a hang glider, I have rarely been so pleased to see the glittering M - the Champs-Élysées branch sign has to be white, rather than the more familiar yellow, to fit in with the chic surroundings - coming into view.

Even better, as like many of the refurbished McDonald's branches, you don't have to make butchered attempts at the lingua franca as you can order your food on a multilingual touch screen computer.

'Do you know what they call a Quarter Pounder with cheese in France? 
- They don't call it a quarter pounder with cheese? 
- Hell no, they got the metric system. They don't know what the fuck a quarter pound is. They call it a royale with cheese.'

Despite almost being swayed by the Grand Premium, a burger with the chips inside, I went with the Quarter Pounder with Cheese - how else was I going to manage to shoehorn my Pulp Fiction impression in? A McBeer is also obligatory - although, sadly they seem to have replaced Kronenbourg 1664 with Heineken - while the pommes frites sauce was a kind of disappointing sweet mayo with dried herbs. Stick with the generic ketchup.

The Ewing had the Signature Collection with bacon and blue cheese. While you can now get the new range in the UK, complete with shiny brioche buns, sadly there are still no options with blue cheese. A shame, as the vast slice of fromage bleu was the highlight. The French signature offering also has double beef patty, making this a hefty burger.  

Alongside she chose the special edition winter fries, like crispy coated waffle chips, and the Very Parfait Myrtille, or a soft serve ice cream with blueberry sauce. You can specify 'collect later' when you make your order, and with the ice cream starting to wilt into a pink soup under the neon lights as the Ewing tackled her behemoth of a burger, I can see the appeal.

Even more French than the Royale with Cheese is the Croque McDo, the famous toasted ham and cheese sandwich given the Maccy D's twist. Although it may not look like much, this double emmenthal and jambon toasted sandwich is pretty delicious, although the most ingenious thing about it is that the 'toast' is made from a inside out burger bun. Mind blown.

The excitement wasn't over yet as we went back to order dessert; and if you were thinking that it's hard to improve on the perfection that is the McFlurry, they manage it here with the McFlurry PARTY. Yes, that's a giant tub of dairy goodness for four people to share, available with toppings including French butter biscuits, Daim pieces, mini Kit Kat balls and extra caramel and chocolate sauce.

Even with all that walking, a bucket of ice cream may have been a step too far. Instead I chose chocolate ice cream swirled with Lotus speculoos biscuit crumbs. Yes, that's right, not only can you get the delicious caramelised Belgian biscuits as a mix in, you can also chose a chocolate ice cream base. The Ewing was so jealous that she got one too.

There's also a McCafe in branch and, as it's France, you can chose macarons and canelé alongside the cookies, muffins and cheesecakes. If you go for breakfast then expect baguettes with butter and jam, and no less than three different types of croissants with your cafe au lait.

We finished the night with the customary coffee and a macaron, this one was banana and milk chocolate, which we ate al fresco in their outdoor seating area while watching the frenetic bustle of Champs-Élysées. While the macaron wan't up to Pierre Herme, not much is, and at 2.20 for both that and a drink it would be churlish to complain too much. 

McDonalds Champs-Elysees
                                                                                                 Renaud Callebaut
And anyway, how often do you get a view of this Golden Arch when you're eating your dessert...

Wednesday, 9 March 2016

The pain of being French

Before you worry, this isn't existential blog about being or a treatise to masochism, but instead is a much happier pean to the French love of baking following my recent trip to Paris. I mean, you could self-flagellate with a baguette, but think of the crumbs...

As we were staying up in the dizzy heights of Montmartre, it meant a daily morning stroll through the cemetery to  Gontran Cherrier's Rue Caulaincourt bakery for a spot of petit dejeuner.

Known for his fusion of East and West, here you'll find baguettes flavoured with squid ink (encre de seiche!- TE) - very nice with goats cheese and fig jam - quiche with kimchi and bread flavoured with red miso and curry and scones with bitter matcha and nuggets of white chocolate.

Thankfully there are also all the classics, including these beautiful Croissants aux amandes. While procuring an almond croissant back across the Channel is often a hard ask - I still remember being envious of a friend whose mum used to buy him one every week from Waitrose, the only place you could find them, when we were growing up - and finding a good one is nigh on impossible.

Sadly for me, given my love for frangipane-stuffed flaky dough, after being spoilt by these almost perfect specimens (see my attempt at *nearly* symmetry breakfast, the lure of a warm buttery pastry being just too strong) the task is now going to be even more difficult.

Another Gallic classic is the custard slice, or as the French more evocatively call it mille-feuille, due to the layers of puff pastry that should resemble a 'thousand leaves'. Although I will make no apologies for secretly enjoying the brick-like version you find in english bakers; the biscuit-y pastry sandwiching a wedge of cornflour thickened bright yellow 'creme anglais'; but I was also looking forward to trying something a little more refined.

And there are reportedly none better than those made by Jaques Genin in his bakery in the Marais. So keen is he to preserve perfection, he will no longer make individual patisserie to go (sharing pastries can still be made to order), lest the fragile puds should shatter in transit. 

I can't say I blame him, there aren't many things sadder than a squashed cake. Thankfully our example was both crisp and creamy and quite magnifique. The chocolat chaud, served in a huge coffee pot and accompanied by a plate of chocolate truffles, was also exceptional. Get one to share, even the Ewing was feeling like Augustus Gloop by the second cup. 

 We also ordered the pate fruits, of the selection of nine different flavours they bought to the table, which the Ewing carefully cut in half with the skills of a surgeon, I most enjoyed the pineapple and kiwi (of which I should have probably refrained, being as I'm allergic it made my throat itch alarmingly for a few minutes after eating it - such a drama queen- TE) while the lychee was as unpleasant as the real life fruit but had the advantage of not having a texture of an eyeball.

I'm going to say something controversial now; I didn't really like the pate fruits. Yes, they looked wonderful, glittering like jellied jewels, but I found them too sweet and missing the zing of fresh fruit. I may be a heathen, but give me a box of black and green fruit pastilles, preferably the ones shaped like little pieces of fruit, and I'd be very happy.

His lauded butter caramels were far more to my taste, but at 110 Euros a kilogram (the bag above was nearly 12 Euros, making them a Euro a piece) they should have been good.

For me, these were candied perfection; the fruit flavours (raspberry and blackcurrant) were gloriously intense, the gingerbread sweet and spicy and the chocolate bitter with smoky undertones. None, however, could beat the simplicity of the natural caramel. A buttery lozenge of burnt sugar joy.

After arriving a little early for our lunch reservation at a nearby bistro it seemed like as good an opportunity as any to pick up a pink praline brioche and a noisette (the French macchiato) to go from Maison Kayser (Paris by Mouth rate also their baguettes as number one in the city, but even we had to stop eating breakfast at some point so we had time to fit in lunch, so just stuck with the one bun).

The feted brioche with pink praline - small sugar coated almonds from Lyon - looked pretty innocuous compared to all the other elaborate cakes and pastries; kinda like a bread roll sprinkled with a bit of fancy sugar. Thankfully looks can be deceptive, with the sweet buttery dough giving way to a centre studded with nutty nuggets of praline that had melted into a syrupy deliciousness. 

Possibly the most French moment of a trip that included eating steak frites in a bistros with red checked tablecloths, and dodging dog shit on Parisian pavements, was seeing the queue for baguettes at Le Grenier a Pain on Sunday morning. 

And with good reason, the baguettes from their Rue Abbesses - seen at the top of the blog - have won baker Djibril Bodian First Prize in the 2015 Grand Prix de la Baguette, awarded for the best baguette in Paris, for the second time in five years and allowing the holder the honour of baking for the president.

Thanks to the government, proving (see what I did there) the state can have a hand in good things, the 1993 “French bread law” states that “baguettes de tradition” must be mixed, kneaded, leavened and baked on premises, without ever being frozen. and must only include wheat flour, water, salt and yeast. One of the reasons that the humble french stick is often so good, although, having been spoilt with the best, it made the other loaves we tried seem a bit ordinary in comparison.

Our trip was also remarkable as it was the first time the Ewing had tried (or even heard of) the kouign amann, a Breton cake that found fame in last year's Great British Bake off after appearing in the technical round and now seems to regularly fill my Twitter feed.

Problems with the pronunciation aside this yeasted cake (more like a flatter danish here), crisp on top and soaked in syrup beneath,  became possibly her favourite bake of the whole trip. The croissant I chose was also pretty great, even if I did manage to sit on it on the Metro ride to the Bastille Market.

It would be terribly remiss to have a post on French fancies and not to mention the macaron. The last time I came here, on our honeymoon, they were all the rage and I manage to write a whole blog post about them, consumed in a cloud of love and refined carbs.

Sad to say, I haven't eaten many since, so I was pretty happy to find Pierre Hermes Rue Cambon store open on a Sunday afternoon (especially as pretty much nothing else in the vicinity was and, after hours of traipsing about, sugar levels were getting low... 

I'd forgotten just how wonderful these are; the quintessential flavour of Paris. Even the woman appearing and attempting the famous wedding ring scam while we were waiting outside couldn't take away from the transcendental majesty of these little delicate discs of joy.

The favourites from my bijou selection were the milk chocolate ganache with passionfruit puree and the matcha and sesame. The liquorice and blackcurrant looked suitably menacing but lacked the bold flavour to match. They also offer giant macaron, a steal at five Euros, of which the creme brulee flavour found favour with the Ewing.

Another regular contender for the best baguettes in Paris is Arnaud Delmontel, whose Rue des Martyrs branch we conveniently passed (COMPLETELY PLANNED - TE) on our walk own the hill into the city centre.

Winner of the best French stick in 2007, he also makes an array of different bread, viennoiserie and cakes. Even though it was breakfast time, the Ewing couldn't resist the lure of a glossy eclair, choosing coffee over chocolate to try and justify it as suitable morning fare.

Understanding the importance of my five a day, I chose the pain aux raisin, a childhood classic I haven't had for many years - well not the 'proper' sort with a flaky croissant dough. This was quite wonderful; crisp layers of pastry layered with a sweet vanilla custard and flecked with dried fruit.

It's difficult to visit Paris without making time for their famous Brest, and I had heard some of the best were to be found at La Pâtisserie des Rêves. Meaning as the 'pastries of dreams' (although their website offers a more worrying translation as the 'taste of children') it was founded by pastry chef Philippe Conticini, to use baking to bring back Proust-like, the memories of youth.

Growing up in England, my memories centre around prosaic (although no less tasty) things such as bread pudding and iced buns, but here in France, home of fine patisserie, des Rêves reinvent far more glamorous classics such as the Saint-Honoré, the Mont Blanc, and the Paris Brest, named for the famous cycle race between the two cities and shaped rather like a bicycle wheel.

Comprising a ring of choux stuffed with hazelnut praline cream, the PB could be one of my favourite flavour combinations and here it is a masterful marriage of ethereal pastry, buttery rich cream and the crunch from the sugared nuts. As it was our first anniversary (four years after we got married, the advantage/disadvantage of a Leap Day wedding), a glass of pink fizz seemed the most appropriate accompaniment. A pairing I'd be very happy to get used to.

Chocoholic, the Ewing had the chocolate eclair, a chocolate flavoured, creme pat-stuffed puffy tube of choux dough that's caramelised with a hazelnut struesel topping before being wrapped in a further shell of chocolate. I'm sure I don't need to tell you how well this was received and, although I was sceptical that the bells and whistles would improve what is already a stone cold classic in my eyes, I can confirm from my (tiny) bite that it was worth the plaudits.

Last day in the City of Love bought rain, but it would have taken a deluge to stop me getting to du Pain et des Idees. Despite the wonderfully old school frontage, windows piled high with fresh bread and cakes, that make you feel like you've been transported back in in history, the bakery only opened in 2002. Since then they have making up for lost time, with head baker, Christophe Vasseur, being was named best boulanger in Paris in 2008.

L'escargot chocolat pistache, with it's garish green go faster stripe of nut paste and studded through with chocolate chunks, was the best snail I have ever eaten (for the real thing see our lunch at Pied du Cochon, where they still managed to be one of the most pleasant things we ate).

As good as it was the pain choc banane may be even better, taking the humble croissant and ramping it up with an ingot of dark chocolate and the addition of fresh banana. Our mini-pave - a sort of small, square roll - stuffed with reblochon cheese and lardons, was also outstanding.

The last stop on route to Garde du Nord was supposed to be Grenier au Pain, for a final kouign amann. Sadly we arrived to find it shuttered - a perilous risk in France, with their random opening hours and strange holidays. Happily Coquelicot is pretty much next door.

The Ewing, who had been practicing her pronunciation all week by watching You Tube videos, successfully asked for the kouign amann. Puffier and less syrupy than the Grenier version, it was good but lacked the former's wow factor. 

I, being ever the hopeless romantic, chose the coeur framboise, or raspberry financier. An unusual choice, I'd normally go for something with chocolate or nuts, this almondy, squishy, perfumed little morsel with a sharp fruit kick ended up being one of my favourite morsels consumed on our visit and the perfect addition, along worth a little vin rouge, to our train picnic on the Eurostar back home.

I could ramble to some gluten-filled conclusion, but I think the picture says it all really; je t'aime French baking.